Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Best Mex

I have to admit, I was hesitant at first to go to Milagro. For one thing, Milagro is in Stonington, and I just didn't find myself out that way very often (although a trip to Water Street Cafe with Liz and her dad convinced me it was probably worth going to Stonington more often). But the main reason that I didn't want to take the trouble to visit Milagro is because I'm not a fan of Zavala, New London's Mexican restaurant, owned by the same family.

Zavala was the first restaurant I went to downtown. I wanted to like it. At the time, I was trying desperately to like New London in general. And I loved the atmosphere when we walked into the restaurant that night - but that was the last thing I loved. The food was bland and the service was poor. On return visits, the service got even worse - waiting upwards of 20 minutes during a slow mid-day meal to place a drink order - and the quality wildly inconsistent. Despite a delicious hibiscus margarita, I finally gave up on Zavala.

Yet I kept hearing great things about Milagro. Curiosity got the best of me when a new foodie friend, Amanda B., recommended it. So last weekend, Tracy, Amanda and I headed out for a Saturday night girls' dinner.

Milagro is much smaller than Zavala - only about ten tables and a small bar. It's also darker and a good portion of the soft lighting comes from Christmas-type lights. We took a table by the window and ordered house margaritas (on the rocks with salt).

Our waitress brought over a tray laden with three different shaped (but roughly the same size) glasses, all rimmed with salt. She set one in front of each of us and poured our drinks from individual shakers, which she left at the table. The margaritas were citrus-y and sharp - in other words, NOT made with sour mix. You could taste the bite of tequila, but it was not overpowering. (At the end of the night, Martin - the owner - showed us his homemade margarita mix, all made with fresh ingredients, and told us that you could use the crappiest tequila in the world and no one would know as long as you had developed a good recipe for mix. I was inclined to agree.)

We started with chips and guacamole. The chips were house-made - they were warm and crispy. They were salted for flavor but didn't taste salty. The guacamole had the consistency of sour cream (I was expecting chunkier) and tasted of ripe avocado, a little bit of lemon or lime juice, and a little kick, perhaps from some pepper or onion.

Entrees were harder to choose - everything on the menu sounded delicious. I eventually went with the tuna ceviche and fish tacos.

Ceviche, for those not familiar, is cut-up raw seafood tossed with citrus juices and herbs, vegetables, or spices. The raw seafood "cooks" in the acid from the citrus juices. The tuna ceviche at Milagro is among the best ceviche I've had. everything was cubed into small enough pieces to be scooped up with more of Milagro's warm, crispy chips, almost like a chunky salsa. The tuna flavors shone through the citrus. Some cilantro added a bright, fresh taste to the whole mix. Best of all, it came topped with a little squiggle of the creamy guacamole.

The fish tacos were excellent as well; however, the ceviche was such a standout that I barely remember the tacos. They were fresh and expertly cooked - not too dry and not drowning in condiments.

We were really too full for dessert, but the waitress tempted us with a margarita sorbet concoction that was on special that night. It was the perfect finish for the meal - the citrus flavors and icy sorbet (complete with a tequila glaze and some shortbread cookies) cleansed our palettes and left us feeling refreshed rather than laden down by a heavy finish.

The food and atmosphere at Milagro were both spectacular. I wish they could find a way to duplicate this experience at Zavala in New London. It could be that Zavala is too large for such an intimate dining experience. It could be that New Londoners aren't interested in Martin's authentic Mexican menu. I'm not going to ponder the why too much - for now, if I want quality Mexican, good service, and cozy atmosphere, I'll be driving to Stonington to dine at Milagro.

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