“Here we have the Salmón Prehispánico,” said the bartender.
The restaurant was packed on a Saturday night, and the barman was doing double duty, delivering food to tables when not stirring and shaking mezcal cocktails.
The round tortilla he presented looked rather basic. It was puffed up, the blue corn charred to a deep, almost hellish, black. The bartender-cum-waiter slowly carved a circle around the radius, gently pulling the tortilla back to reveal a salmon fillet wrapped in a banana leaf. A puff of steam rose from the fish as he explained how encasing the salmon, first in the leaf, then sealing it between the masa, or dough, of two uncooked tortillas, approximated the age-old Mexican technique of clay-oven cooking.
He stuck a serving spoon into a ramekin of Oaxacan-style mashed potatoes. “Now, we put it on top of all of this goodness of the salmon.”
The salmon was heavenly, as heavenly as the restaurant’s name professes: Casi Cielo. Almost heaven.
From its location in the new Modera complex on Roswell Road near Hammond Drive in Sandy Springs, Casi Cielo strives to deliver a taste of Mexican heaven on earth. The new concept is from the same group that operates La Parrilla Mexican Restaurant locations around the metro area. But, in contrast to La Parrilla, Casi Cielo is chef-driven, upscale and focused on opening our eyes and taste buds to Oaxacan cuisine.
The state of Oaxaca stretches from central Mexico to the Pacific coastline in the south. Its capital city, Oaxaca de Juárez (or simply, Oaxaca), is located inland, in the central valleys region. Oaxaca’s culinary gifts to the world include mole negro — a thick, rich sauce holding the nuanced flavors of dried, roasted chiles, innumerable spices and melted chocolate. Another Oaxacan offering: mezcal. Nearly 85 percent of tequila’s smoky sister hails from Oaxaca. Mole and mezcal are both in the offing at Casi Cielo.
As you walk in the warmly lit restaurant, the bar is what attracts your attention. So, start with a drink. Mezcal can be made from more than 30 varieties of agave. The most commonly used is espadín, which you can experience in many cocktails on the restaurant’s mezcal-heavy drink menu, including a balanced, refreshing Paloma Negra. (If you prefer tequila, try La Llorona, a margarita spiced with jalapeno juice. It has heat, but not enough to make you cry, as the name might imply.)
Helming the kitchen is Juan Ruiz. Now one year into his new life in Atlanta, the 25-year culinary veteran and native of Bogota, Colombia, has worked at fine dining establishments around the globe, including some eight years in Spain, as well as in France and Panama. In preparation for opening Casi Cielo, Ruiz traveled to Mexico, where chef Luis Arellano of the popular Criollo Restaurant imparted him with Oaxacan cooking ethos.
Indeed, this kitchen treats its ingredients with care and respect as they fashion blue corn masa into tostadas, or as they slowly cook toasted chiles (pasilla, morita, guajillo) — and some nearly two dozen other spices, along with chocolate — into a thick sauce that is poured atop a trio of chipotle chicken enchiladas in a dish called enmoladas. I enjoyed the first few bites, but wished for less chocolate notes and more mole nuance. So take those few bites and then share the dish, just as you should share the Pato con Mole Negro. The entire table can make tacos out of these tender bites of shredded duck, dabs of mole, red onions and the rest of the ensemble. Savor the accompanying pork frijolada, slow-cooked beans topped with fresh, Oaxacan-style ricotta cheese called requesón and crunchy pork rinds.
The majority of Casi Cielo’s menu — divided into four courses, each dubbed a “momento” — is ripe for sharing. Begin with Aguachile de Pescado — super-fresh halibut, slivered, looped into rounds and set upright in a decorative display — or the tuna tartare, another fresh fish holding the double freshness of cubed ripe mango and avocado.
Skip salads and soups. A nopal salad had me poking around with a fork, pushing aside tomato wedges, in search of cactus slivers. This mélange, like the tuna salad, comes with a potent dressing that doesn’t serve the produce.
We’ve arrived at the third “momento.” It is one that brings tlayuda, tostadas, tacos and the aforementioned enmoladas. A tlayuda is an Oaxacan version of a pizza. Here, you’ll find the base – a house-made tortilla, the round blue corn composition that reappears again and again throughout your dinner – swiped with melted lard, then smothered with a black bean puree, Oaxacan cheese, cherry tomatoes, jalapeno rounds, avocado slices and microgreens. It looks fancy. It tastes less so.
Among tacos, the cochinillo (suckling pig) is the best bet, but not of the wowza, juicy caliber I’ve experienced from the baby pig’s pride place in Segovia, Spain.
That’s OK, because the fourth “momento” has arrived. If you have the time and your table is of accord, order the Arroz a la Tumbada. This rice dish — more like risotto, not paella (meaning: none of the crispy socarrat bits on the bottom of the pan) — will take 30 minutes. Otherwise, make it the salmon, doubly encased in banana leaf and tortilla.
The entrecote is my favorite steak cut. Here, the presentation on a wooden platter is certainly expressive. And a visible run of juices shows that the meat has been left to rest in peace for a bit, but that last finish of salt was a few fingers too much. And the accompanying chimichurri? Humdrum.
I wonder if I would have enjoyed it more were an eager server not to have pushed upon us some Spanish garnacha that he thought would swig well with the steak.
But don’t spare me the server who fretted the night we ordered too much food. In Spanish and in English, she voiced her concerns. We’d ordered too much, she said, as she removed and reset plates and silverware for many momentos, including a divine dessert of alebrije, an Oaxacan-style cheesecake with tarty fruit condiment chamoy. Her hell was our heaven. To that server: Thank you for taking me almost to heaven.
Overall rating: 2 of 4 stars (very good)
Food: Mexican, with concentration on Oaxacan cuisine
Best dishes: Salmón Prehispánico, Arroz a la Tumbada, Pato con Mole Negro, Enmoladas, Alebrije
Vegetarian selections: Guacamole frito, Burrata al carbon, soups, Chile poblano, Tlayuda Garden of Oaxaca, Milhojas de Verduras
Price range: $$$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays
Parking: valet; free parking on nearby side street
MARTA station: none
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: moderate
Takeout: not recommended
Address, phone: 6125 Roswell Road, Sandy Springs. 404-549-9411