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Cilantro Bar and Grill

Update: Cilantro is definitely closed.
Update 7/5/12: Cilantro is not answering the phone during posted open hours and might be closed.

In a word: Nice. Almost too nice.

The specs: #0565  
Address, hours & details via Isthmus; reviews at Yelp, Isthmus, AV Club, 77Square; listing at EatDrinkMadison; TDPF; official web site, Cilantro Bar and Grill on Urbanspoon

Latest Cilantro news and reviews

JM ate the plato de bocadillos with a lemonade.
John ate the queso fundido with a mango cilantro margarita.
Nichole ate the special, lentil croquettes with shoestring fried sweet potatoes and red tomatillo sauce, with a mango cilantro margarita.
The bill was $65, or $21.67/person, plus tip.
JM gave Cilantro Bar and Grill a B; John gave Cilantro Bar and Grill a C; Nichole gave Cilantro Bar and Grill an A-. (see our grading rubric).

Madison has supported a dozen midrange Mexican restaurants and many decent taquerias for a long time. We're not in a position to get all highfalutin' (our willingness to cave to the ease of Laredo's is no secret) but even we recognize that Cilantro is part of the upscale Mexican cuisine category, and our experience was that they're filling the niche well. Which is to say, don't the boys' grades fool you.

In summary:

  • DO go to Cilantro for tasty, upscale Mexican cuisine.
  • DO get some of their interesting drinks.
  • DON'T expect much from the space.
  • DO expect great service.
  • DON'T expect burritos, tacos, and chimichangas.
  • DON'T bring Mr. or Ms. Pickypants.
  • DO expect intelligently designed dishes with a wide variety of flavors.
  • DO bring a little extra cash.
  • DON'T miss it if you want something truly different from the MOR Mex of Madison more generally.

Cilantro has made fewer compromises than others of its type, but there are still some incongruities to cope with. An airy location with a vista of Memorial High means lunches are hectic and loud. An audience largely accustomed to $7 enchiladas means the effort that goes into precise presentation may go unnoticed. And a menu that doesn't include anything remotely like a "burrito as big as your head" might make it hard to persuade your companions to come here if they always like their comfort zone comfy.

Our server was extraordinarily skilled, especially in her unstilted recital of several of Cilantro's complex dishes from memory. For drinks, JM briefly considered the Oso Cilantro (a growling lemonade, lime, and cilantro drink) but went with plain lemonade, which was excellent. Nichole and John both got the signature mango-cilantro margarita. Ours lacked the pepper kick we'd read about and hoped for. Still, the mango was as smooth as nectar, and the bit of cilantro wasn't overstated.

Mango cilantro cocktailTamale

We split a tamale. The fresh corn husk (i.e. probably one not involved with the cooking) was pretty. A center of moist masa with Chihuahua cheese, mild onions, and a liberal dose of cumin in its red sauce was quite satisfying.

Appetizer plate

Queso fundido and tortillasJM got the plato de bocadillos (the five-item appetizer plate) as an entree. He liked it, but might have preferred something more substantial, and nothing had really called to him from the entree menu.

The deep-fried crater of cornmeal topped with spicy sauced beef provided the core of his meal. Nichole snagged the smile-inducing tostada with ceviche, a tortilla chip topped with bright citrusy vegetables and a wee bit of fish. The quesadilla stuffed with cheese, diced potatoes and vegetables, fried and decorated with a light green sauce, was surprisingly delicate. Finally, the flauta of spicy chicken served as a vehicle for some bright guacamole, and John shared his tortillas to help clean out the ramekin. John liked his queso fundido well enough. It was filling, garnished with sliced sauteed poblanos and the chorizo had a nice fennel-ish inflection.

The star of the show was clearly the nightly special: lentil croquettes fried in a light egg batter, filled with cheese, onion, and red pepper and topped with sauteed spinach and addiction-inspiring shoestring sweet potato fries. A liberal serving (OK, a lake) of smoky red tomatillo sauce provided an underpinning to the whole meal. Lucky for Nichole, lentils were too weird for her companions, so she didn't have to share.

Lentil croquettes

Therein lies the rub. Cilantro has fabulous food, and its heart is in the right place. Whether the menu has enough perennial favorites to satisfy the average Joe is questionable. On the other hand, the room was packed when we went - it's good to see them get attention, even if, as we suspect, it's the connection to a celebrity Anglo chef that finally gets people in the door like we didn't see at La Mestiza. If Cilantro can grab and retain a loyal following, they'll do well.

Which is good, because we want to go back and try the pecan pie if it's anything like Frontera's - er, if Frontera's is anything like Cilantro's.

Comments

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"Pickypants"? Eww!!!

I don't think the Anglo thing is entirely fair. If Jose Andres opened up a spot in Madison, or had a former sous chef do the same, I think the hype would still be as strong. I think the Chicago pull is stronger than any "phew, a white guy inspiring a Mexican restaurant!" feeling. And let's not forget, the guy actually running this kitchen ain't white.

Rick Bayless has put in enough time in Mexico and with Mexican food advocacy, that I think he's earned a reprieve from any concerns of "cultural appropriation."

I have such mixed feeling about Cilantro. The food was good. I am not a fan the generic Mexican restaurants that Madison has so many of. Mexico is a large country with diverse food. Todd and I were always jealous of the variety of Mexican food that could be found in Milwaukee.

We had issues with the environment - live music so loud we couldn't hear our server, musicians blocking access to the bathroom, no salt on the table, waitress not able to make change, etc. It's still a new restaurant so I am hoping for improvement. If not, I guess I can always get carry out.

Kyle,

It's true that "the guy running this kitchen ain't white." That's precisely our point, and our observation about the power of that particular chef was arrived at after many conversations, a very close reading of the buzz on both Cilantro and La Mestiza (especially the provenance of their staff), and our observations of the crowds at both places.

I think I was guilty of judging it based on its name and location: a moniker that conjures up similarities to Chipotle and the old space of the Rice Cafe had me thinking it was roughly $10-ish hearty meals.

The food was good and they had a decent array of drinks, but it's definitely not the place to eat if you're truly hungry.

I have eaten there 3 times, twice for dinner and once for brunch. Loved it each time. I like many of the cheaper mexican restaurants in madison, but loved the clarity of the flavors in the sauces at Cilantro. Yes the space is a bit funky and loud, the waitstaff a bit uneven in training, but the food is delicious. We have the "divorced eggs" at brunch and my daughter and I practically fought over the last of that green sauce that came with it. As for the size of the portions, we have never had room for dessert...but ordering an appetizer as an entree would generally mean that it is not designed to fill you up...

I went just went back Cilantro for lunch. The food was still excellent. The service had improved greatly. However, they still don't have salt on the table. Also, the plates seem too big for the table.

I got the same lentil dish Nichole described. The sauce was incredible. I hope they make it part of the regular menu. Everyone else enjoyed their dishes, too, but my sauce was the big hit.

I went there for the first time for dinner last week. As others have said, the service was a little uneven and the plates were definitely too big for the tables, but the excellence of the food more than made up for it.

Cilantro and I really hit it off on the wrong foot. There was a bit of a wait when we visited, so we got a drink at the bar (the mango-cilantro margaritas you mention). They were great. But when the bill came, we had both been overcharged. I picked up a menu to confirm the prices, but when I brought it up with our server, she offered us a cursory, "Oh, those are old menus," and then put our "incorrect" drink list back on top of the pile of menus by the door.

I hate to be such a stickler about a couple dollars' discrepancy, but I was really struck by that customer service. We probably won't be back.

$28 for 2 platters of COLD food, we will not be going back!

Absolutely awful!!!! We went to dinner here last night and the service and food was terrible. After being sat, we were ignored for approx 10 minutes. After ordering, we were asked what temp to do the duck, 8 minutes after that we were told that they were out of duck.Scallops were ordered at this point. 10 minutes after that they attempted to serve me fish enchiladas in place of the chicken mole that I had ordered. They seemed confused and the waiter confirmed that I had ordered chicken, but still tried to give me fish. They returned that to the kitchen along with the shrimp entree for my companion and returned 12 minutes later with our food. Finally!!! The shrimp were cold and not appetizing, my chicken mole enchiladas were barely warm and after the 4 bite of getting bone, I put it off to the side. the scallops arrived about 10 minutes later and they were hot and cooked perfectly. Problem was there were only 4 scallops on a huge plate with no starch or veg. Looked like a large appetizer. They never asked how anything was, we had to flag down for water refills, a complete mess. We had looked forward to going here after reading reviews and after the experience that we had will never return. I don't mind paying for quality, but this was the worst reataurant experience that I've ever had in Madison and I dine out quite frequently. I would recommend that others who dine here will likely be disappointed. 2 hours for dinner:(

I had an excellent meal here shortly after they opened, but a more recent visit was marred by poor service and inconsistent food. Maybe not getting enough business to sustain their strong start? Can't help but think that the decision to locate in a strip mall in office park land has something to do with it.

So we've been hearing mixed news about how Cilantro's doing lately. I'd wanted to try the chocolate pecan pie ever since I saw the recipe, so we went back.

First attempt, we called ahead and our slice-to-go wasn't ready when they said it would be. Second try, we had a nice experience and excellent service at the bar while they packed up a light dinner to go.

Bottom line: try the pastel de nuez. If there's any hassle, it's worth it.

Pastel de Nuez

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