Rick Bayless is my favorite chef, but his restaurants are all the way in Chicago, and I unfortunately have no plans to visit them in the near future (although I do have a great desire to make the trip). I was very excited to learn in this Isthmus article that three Frontera alums have opened Cilantro Bar and Grill, less than a mile and a half from my house, in the former Fiesta locale on Tree Lane. I ate at Fiesta during its short tenure, and was shocked and excited to see the drastic transformation that has turned that locale in Cilantro. Unfortunately there will be no pictures of my meal since I didn't feel comfortable whipping out my cell phone camera to snap a few pics since they classed up the joint.
Fiesta was, more or less, your typical Americanized Mexican restaurant, with free chips and salsa on the table and chimicangas on the menu. The food there was good and executed competently, but had no culture or soul. Cilantro is an entirely different animal. The scent of freshly made corn tortillas greets you as you enter the restaurant with friendly and attentive staff and an inviting atmosphere. In contrast to the sad and empty Fiesta, Cilantro's dining room was full of customers enjoying a wonderful authentic Mexican meal in a slightly formal, but still comfortable, environment.
My dining experience started with a divine glass of house-made sangria. That, combined with the flamenco dancer performing live in the restaurant, brought me back to my first sips of sangria during a flamenco show in Barcelona during a trip to Spain in high school. For dinner I ordered the Enchiladas de Pollo con Mole Negro, which was served with rice and beans on the side. Moles are notoriously complex and, when properly made, take an entire day to meld the many flavors from chiles, nuts, spices, and chocolate and are thus something I'll probably never have time to make myself. The mole was spicy, as it should be, but not overly so and subtle hints of chocolate, chiles, nuts, and spices came through in every bite. I have no hope of identifying all the elements that compose this delicious mole negro, but each bite was a true pleasure. The rice that accompanied the enchilidas was perfectly cooked and seasoned well with in part, of course, cilantro, but the black beans were quite ordinary, just topped with a sprinkling of queso fresco, that I hope they make in house (making queso fresco is quite easy; Rick Bayless has even demonstrated on Mexico: One Plate at Time). I'll happily forgive them the plain black beans (which I still like) after all the effort that went into the mole negro, although I hope they find a way to make the black beans more interesting in the future.
I came to Cilantro with high hopes and expectations and I was not disappointed. My visit to Cilantro not only makes me want to come back, but also makes me want to crack open some of my Rick Bayless cookbooks that I haven't cracked open in too long a time. A meal that leaves you not only sated, but inspired, is a rare thing and I recommend this place to anyone who wants their meal to deliver more than mere sustenance.
Cilantro Bar and Grill is located at 7005 Tree Lane in Madison, WI.