Posted On: 04/01/2004
Spring in St. Louis usually means the arrival of dandelions and crab grass, but this year, that pair of horticultural pests are matched by the arrival of multi-cultural pleasures. The Guru doesn't recall many springs that have been announced by the arrival – both real and impending – of so many restaurants offering so many different styles of cuisine.
Like dandelions and crabgrass, new restaurants are everywhere, but unlike the green things popping out of earth and sidewalk cracks, seeing neat little restaurant signs and noticing the aroma of fresh paint mark great pleasures at this time of the year.
Mirasol takes the Spanish custom of tapas, or little plates of usually spicy or salty food designed to go with drinks, moves it across the Atlantic and re-creates it as Latin American fare. Brian and Brendan Marsden, who helped create Modesto, did it again in this attractive little place, simple and highlighted with brightness. "Nuevo Latin Cuisine," or "new Latino cooking" is the subtitle for their restaurant.
No matter what you call them, the dishes at Mirasol are delightful and presentation is impressive. In a variety of dishes, strange but beautiful shapes, tastes and textures are beautifully balanced and seasoning is just right, adding a spark of flavor without being intrusive. It's an outstanding dining experience, the little place across the street from the Pageant Theatre, and it's bound to be better as it adds sidewalk seating for the nicer weather, allowing diners to enjoy a superior fashion show as concert fans come and go.
The small portions allow diners to try many different dishes without over-eating or busting the budget, and Mirasol is just right for friends. The portion size is perfect for a couple to split, or it provides a basic sample for a party of four, though dishes come from the kitchen rapidly enough to make a re-order possible without creating a chore. A party of three is just right, as long as one of the members is skillful with a knife and if all three of them understand division – either long or short.
The menu is divided into four sections: salads and soups, chilled dishes, warm dishes and four different ceviches, classic Latin fish dishes that begin with raw fish marinated in citrus juice. The citric acid in the juice actually "cooks" the fish and adds flavor at the same time. A group of spices and herbs add more. Salmon is sliced and bathed in lemon, wasabi caviar, cilantro, pink peppercorns and coriander oil, served with a slaw made of horseradish, chayote squash and apple. Scallops are marinated in grapefruit, lime and lemon juices and topped with chiles, cucumber and mint, served with daikon, sesame and jicama salad. Honduran ceviche involves tuna in coconut milk, ginger, jalapeno peppers and lime juice, with some shredded coconut drizzled here and there, and Euadorian style has rock shrimp with roasted peppers, citrus juice, avocado and herbs. It's served with corn nuts and topped with some smoked paprika, which adds a slightly different, piquant flavor.
Over the course of a couple of visits, I sampled all but the salmon, and all were splendid. The familiar flavor of tuna comes through the spicing, but the taste is very special. Old-fashioned corn nuts brought a chuckle of reminiscence and a hit of crunch that heightened the shrimp, and I think my favorite was the scallop, partly because I like the shellfish so much, partly because the fresh mint and the salad were added bonuses.
The salad and soup section includes a green salad, hearts of palm with roasted sweet peppers and cheese, a soup of the day and ajiaco, a Colombian chicken chowder that arrived in a bowl that provided a challenge and an illusion. One side is much higher than the other, and after the server had placed it in front of me, I kept reaching for it as if to straighten it so that both sides were the same height, a move which would have poured soup into my lap. The illusion is a little strange, but the soup was a delight, with well-roasted chicken, chunks of avocado, capers and cheese all in a warm, rich broth with hints of pepper and cilantro.
Causa — a mashed potato terrine with layers of a salad of onions, sweet peppers and olives, with a cucumber-cilantro dressing and sprinkles of goat cheese on top — was the one dish that did not find unanimous applause. The texture of the chilled mashed potatoes didn't work, and while the vegetables were good, they were insufficient to overcome the rather flat effect of the potatoes.
Another cold appetizer, escabeche, a marinated fish similar to ceviche, was a real winner, the nicely tender calamari marinated in ginger, lime and basil for a warm, welcome flavor. A salad of noodles and spaghetti squash worked nicely and a handful of peanuts on top were a charming garnish.
The warm appetizers we sampled involved perfect tamales, served in the husk and stuffed with wild mushrooms and red chiles, juicy chicken and peppy chorizo sausage skewered and grilled with a tangy guava barbecue sauce; duck and pork meatballs that brought out hints of both flavors under a pepper sauce that benefitted from some cashew nuts; baked oysters that were expensive (3 for $8) and similar to a Rockefeller treatment with spinach and the pleasant addition of bacon, all under a corn-cream sauce and delicious, tender boneless short ribs stuffed with squash and roasted garlic in a red wine sauce. They were special, arriving tender and flavorful, with just a hint of the garlic and a lovely contrast with some dried peaches in the sauce.
Dishes with mussels and crab, and more skewered and grilled items, like the Asian satays called antichucos, also are available, and there's a nice, if slightly small, wine list, though all the wines also are available by the glass and there are some good selections. There also are some superior tropical rum drinks, like mojitos and the habit-forming Brazilian caipirinhas, which are as dangerous as they are delicious.
Desserts, too, mostly seem to come from off the too-beaten path. Consider homemade banana ice cream, dense and flavorful, sporting a ladleful of tropical fruits over the top. Or a rice pudding made with coconut milk and topped with candied calabacitas and a small comma-shaped sliver of candied red chile. The chile adds no heat, but the dish is definitely a big-flavor item, enough to charm even the coconut-wary.
Mirasol, a winner in the reclaimed territory east of the Loop.
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