Carla Meyer

Dining review: At Cielito Lindo, the cooking inspires in a building that doesn’t

Cielito Lindo, an aspiring upscale Mexican restaurant that opened in September, has a significant problem to overcome, partly because its menu and mostly deft cooking suggest elegance, while the building in which the magic happens is anything but.

Architecturally speaking, it looks like a dive and functions like a cafe, cramped and clunky, while plates like Pipian Verde de Oaxaca (green mole with green tomatillo, squash seeds and epazote) and Costillas de Cordero en Salsa Mestiza (lamb chops covered in the chef’s special sauce) function at a much higher altitude.

Cielito Lindo is also pricy. It would be easy for two people to spend $75 or more on dinner. But if you were on a special date and came for the fine food, only to size up what you were in for as you walked toward it from your car, you might not even make it in the door.

This is an old KFC that became a PGR Noodle joint, and there’s nothing about the exterior — and not nearly enough about the interior — to make you think you are in a fine dining establishment.

Still, this new restaurant has proved popular in the east Sacramento neighboorhood and, situated as it is on J and 37th streets, has become yet another appealing food establishment that has made for a little culinary scene — anchored by stalwarts Juno’s Kitchen and Formoli’s Bistro.

The disparity for Cielito Lindo makes for an awkward juxtaposition — fine food served by waiters wearing vests and neckties in a space that lacks warmth or style and is a tad chintzy looking. Oh, and I might as well mention drafty, at least for now, especially since one of the female staffers made the rounds in the dining room wearing a puffed-up parka on a modestly frigid night recently.

Why is the setting so important? Isn’t it OK to be a little funky if the food is good? For one thing, this isn’t the Mission district in San Francisco, where funky and cramped are the new normal for upscale.

The competition in Sacramento at this price point and style of cuisine is significant. There’s Zocalo, with its vast elgance in the heart of midtown, and Mayhuel, with its even better food in a sharp urban setting along downtown’s K Street. If you’re looking for a night on the town and a destination featuring Mexican cooking, it would be difficult to pick Cielito Lindo as your first choice.

There’s another problem, and one would hope it’s temporary. One night when we were there, three separate groups walked in and promptly walked out, and if they got past that KFC-y facade, they really wanted to eat there. But Cielito Lindo doesn’t have a beer and wine license, even though it has been open since September. That’s a significant issue. When I called recently to ask about it, the restaurant had no timetable for when it would be able to start serbi

Thus, the best we can say about this restaurant is that it makes an appealing addition to the east Sacramento culinary scene, a neighborhood eatery with food that will often satisfy, sometimes wow and, yes, occasionally let you down.

Let’s start with the very good — the soups. Soups are a great way to get to know a chef — the passion, the palate, the patience to build flavors over time, it all shines through in an excellent bowl of soup. I loved the aroma, the deep flavors and the the textural qualitiy of the Crema de Rajas Poblanas ($5 for a cup, $8 for a bowl). There was a sweetness up front, then the creaminess coats the palate, followed by a slow and deeply satisfying heat. This soup, flavored with vanilla pods and sprigs of epazote, and made with poblano peppers, onion and corn, is one of my new favorites in town.Shield your eyes as you approach the building, if you have to. Wear a parka if you must. But definitely try this soup.

The other starters were not at that level. In fact, one of them, the empandadas with beef and potatoes and in chile ancho sauce, suffered from being lukewarm, practically cold. That’s an attention-to-detail issue.

There were others. Take my steak. No really, you just took my steak. Without asking. When I wasn’t finished. That was the clumsiest of the sometimes awkward, sometimes excellent service here. I was sitting there trying to enjoy my rib eye topped with chorizo — yes, I know, that’s a high-occtane combo — and I was two-thirds finished. I was talking. And when I talk I tend to put down my utensils. The server swooped in and wisked it away.

Maybe he’s a mindreader, for that steak was a tough one to like. It was thin and overcooked and just not a quality piece of meat, set atop some deflty seasoned baby potatoes. When I ordered the steak, our server asked if I would like it cooked medium-well. That’s an oddity in itself, suggesting my temperature preference, especially when most good kitchens like to be on the light side of medium. I ordered it medium-rare. It arrived well-done. Dry, dark, chewy, disappointing. The chorizo was very good, as wall the pico de gallo.

One of the shrimp dishes — Camarones al Mojo de Ajo — showed balance and precision in a dish that was relatively lowkey in flavor and spiciness. The sauteed shrimp was perfectly cooked, tender yet firm, and the seasoning was gentle but satisfying. The rice with cilantro was very nicely cooked, and didn’t have any of that clingy or clumpiness that detracts.

The best entree of the night during one of three visits illustrated the ambition and skill of the kitchen in a dish that was complex and deeply delicious was the combination of very tender pork and chicken called Estofado de Granja. There’s a lot going on. Visually, there is plenty of height to the plating, and the adobo sauce is a deep, warm brown that beckons the senses. It’s hearty like a stew, but there was also enough finesse and nuance here to define the style of Cielito Lindo.

A dish that might rival that one turned up during another visit, an entree built around a delicious green mole made with tomatillo (think sweet to start, then broadening to savory and then eclipsing the palate with a peppery heat). It’s called Pipian Verde de Oaxaca, and this bright, eye-appealing sauce includes roasted squash seeds and epazote, served with a large piece of boneless chicken breast. The chicken was slightly dry, a demerit I mention only because the cooking can sometimes be near-perfect.

Seafood is also an emphasis here, and the chef does it very nicely — with one quibble. During each of my visits, a server told me the Swordfish al Pastor, a meaty seafood dish I looked forward to tasting, was not available, even though it continued to be listed on the menu. Why not take it off the menu. In fact, a restaurant of this caliber — in the alleged farm-to-fork capital of the free world — could have a much more flexible menu that responds to and relflects seasonality.

That said, the red snapper I had one night was perfectly cooked in a folded pouch, or papillote style, showed the marriage of skill and restraint in its cooking and composition, with mild overall flavors from the epazote, cilantro, spinach and squash.

Dessert options are limited, and only one stood out — a fruit cup in which the cup is actually a mold of chocolate you will want to eat. The fruit could have been more interesting.

With so much depth and nuance in the kitchen and with plenty of delight appearing on the table, Cielito Lindo has the potential to shine. Yet, the building itself will limit that potential, making this new eatery a neighborhood delight for the east Sacramento crowd, perhaps but not yet a dining desitination for the rest of us.

Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. On Twitter, @Blarob.

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