The audience at Isthmus' annual Green Day event was disappointed when Chicago chef Rick Bayless politely declined pleas to bring his renowned Mexican cuisine to Madison. (You can't blame us for trying.) Fortunately, we now have Bayless by proxy. Three alums of Bayless' Frontera Grill opened Cilantro Bar and Grill in late May on Tree Lane on Madison's far west side. Though the modest mini-mall faade doesn't show it, inside the dining room is some of the most exciting Mexican cooking happening in Madison restaurants.
I was excited to visit Cilantro for a number of reasons, chief among them that I'm a big Bayless fan and I wanted to see what his protégés could do. Another reason was my dining companions. I brought the pickiest eater I know, as well as a companion who is a native of Chiapas, Mexico. Just walking in the door, we had already set a high bar for the Cilantro kitchen, though they didn't know it.
The Cilantro dining room is bright and casual, with plenty of space between tables and booths. You might want to grab a mango-cilantro margarita as soon as you walk in. We started our meal with the plato de bocadillos, a beautifully plated assortment of five classic Mexican appetizers. It was a bit hard to keep track of things, as we descended on the plate like crazed vultures, but the flauta de pollo, a crispy corn tortilla "flute" filled with chicken, and the tinga de res, a corn tostada topped with shredded chipotle beef, were my favorites. We also tried the sopa de cilantro y calabaza, a warm, creamy, lovely light green zucchini soup. The diner from Chiapas pronounced it both excellent and authentic, and I agreed.
One notable difference between Cilantro and other Mexican restaurants in town is its high-impact presentation. Rather than the standard plate of sauce-drenched enchiladas, rice and beans, Cilantro delivers an impeccable, aesthetically precise plate. A spoonful of guacamole rests on a square of banana leaf; an imposing pyramid of white rice overlooks a dark pool of mole sprinkled just so with sesame seeds. The effect is exciting and energizing.
Our entrees ranged from average to excellent. My fish enchiladas in green mole, a thick sauce, were tasty but simple, as were the vegetarian enchiladas in cilantro cream, though the vegetables were a little underdone. Chicken enchiladas in black mole provoked many intrigued, contemplative tastes from us all. Mole negro is a famously complicated sauce, requiring many steps and sometimes dozens of ingredients, creating a sauce that is intense and dark in both color and flavor.
We encountered a misstep when the puerco de manchamanteles (pork tenderloin "in a sauce that leaves spots on the tablecloth") ordered by my picky companion came not in its own fruity sauce but in the mole negro. Armando Cristobal, one of the owners, was summoned by our server. When informed of the mix-up, Cristobal got a stern look on his face that made it clear these kinds of mistakes were not to be tolerated. He apologized and graciously brought a new entrée with the correct sauce. Mr. Picky Eater was unfazed, having enjoyed both sauces as well as the quick attention to correcting the mistake.
My favorite Cilantro dish so far, though, is one I had on another visit at lunchtime - a simple plate of pork tacos al pastor. The corn tortillas, wonderfully earthy and aromatic, were a perfect foil for the moist, flavorful pork.
Desserts shouldn't be an afterthought. The pastel tres leches, ivory cake deliciously drenched in sweet milk, was wonderful. The one that I'll go back for, though, was the caramel flan. It's less jiggly and liquidy than some flan, more like the firm, cheesecakey queso de nápoles that my Chiapan companion fondly recalled her father making in a caramel-lined can. The point is, go. It's amazing.
It's a great thing to walk into a restaurant and feel safe enough, in a knowledgeable chef's hands, to be adventurous. Those who want to explore Mexican flavors - and those who are already deeply in love with them - will find that at Cilantro.