WALKING THROUGH the huge blackened doors into Milagro Cantina on Kirkland’s Lake Street, the sunset glinting off the windows, you just know you’re going to have a good time. The atmosphere is that rare combination of sophisticated and casual. Serious slabs of black walnut and leather upholstered furniture are balanced by whimsical colored glass lanterns playfully arranged in the main dining room.
Early for my reservation, I wandered into the lounge, planting myself onto a bar stool. At 6 p.m. the bar was already full and remained so throughout the evening. There are so many delicious-sounding beverages on the cocktail menu that it is difficult to choose just one.
The Ginger-Caramel Margarita ($9) comes on the rocks in a salt-rimmed tumbler, a spear of pickled ginger across the top. There’s no question about getting my money’s worth of tequila, as its warmth spreads across my chest.
Other noteworthy cocktails include the Milagro Margarita ($13), a cherry-lime flavored libation in a classic cocktail glass, or its black currant cousin, the Calaveras ($9). The refreshing Cucumber-Lavender Mojito ($10) will undoubtedly be popular in the summer months.
Those craving something different might try the Chino Moreno ($11). Though its good looks put it right at home in a Valentine’s dinner spread, with the red wine floating in a combination of agave reposado, Benedictine, and Liquore Strega, it is far from sweet; it’s herbal anise notes require slow contemplation.
As the hostess seated us in the corner table near the petrified wood fire and water installation, I couldn’t help but notice the diverse groups of diners enjoying their meals. Jeans and plaid were equally interspersed with fashionably low-cut tops, casual and sophisticated like the decor.
Servers initiate the new diner with an explanation of Milagro’s take on chips and salsa. The chili powder-speckled tostadas are good all on their own as well as dipped in the smoky chipotle or the tangy tomatillo salsas, though I find myself missing some sort of pico de gallo. A nicely balanced order of Guacamole de Milagro ($8) is also a tasty choice.
Chef Chris Peterson, most recently from Bis on Main in Bellevue, developed Milagro’s menu after spending some time surfing and eating his way through Baja and other regions of Mexico. His skilled grasp of French cooking techniques paired with an obvious love of bold Mexican flavors confidently shapes Milagro’s unique menu.
Spending the whole evening sampling appetizers is not a bad way to go at Milagro. The bright flavors of the Ceviche de Camarones y Dorado ($12) danced merrily across my tongue.
One of Peterson's favorite playthings on the small plate menu is the crisp, delicate Sopes de Milagro ($8); corn masa biscuits filled with an interchangeable array of ingredient combinations just to keep things interesting.
In most Mexican restaurants, the chile rellenos tend toward the inedible side. Not so at Milagro where the deep green poblano ($12) is stuffed with a combination of shrimp, crab, potatoes, queso asadero and just enough cream to balance the earthy heat of the chile. I might have licked my plate.
The Aquachiles de Viera y Pargo ($11) are as close as Mexican cuisine comes to sushi. Thinly sliced sea scallops and snapper are bathed in vinegar, with cucumber crescents, red jalapeno rings and paper-thin tomatillo coins scattered atop accessorizing this truly elegant dish. It packs some heat, but it is all up front, not lingering for long.
WHEN MILAGRO first opened in December, the transition from appetizers to entrees seemed to get the best of the waitstaff. The small plates were often left to clutter the table well into the next phase of dining. After two months in business these issues have largely been resolved. Just about the only thing that could still use some polish is the speed with which drinks come out from the bar, causing some to question if the tequila is perhaps still on its way north.
A glass of Tilia Malbec/Syrah pairs wonderfully with Milagro’s 16-ounce spice-rubbed New York steak ($38). That’s right, steak at a Mexican restaurant. With a full, slightly sweet crust and a ring of mulato and cascabel chile salsa negra, one might need to prepare early in the day for this substantial entree. A roasted medley of vegetables rounds it out.
Other large plates for big appetites include the Costillitas de Puerco Adobado ($20), chile-glazed baby back ribs served with a sweet corn tamale worth every penny, and the Mole Rojo con Pierna de Cordero ($24), a braised lamb shank swimming in a sea of complex, delicious red mole.
Seafood is a major player in the entree selections. Lubina a la Veracruzana ($23) is a luscious piece of sea bass cooked to crispy golden perfection on one side atop a bed of green rice, redolent of herbs and poblano. A brightly acidic moat of tomatoes dotted with capers and shockingly chartreuse Castelvetrano olives hems in the island of rice and sea bass.
Those looking for something on the lighter side won’t be disappointed by the Huachinango en Hoja de Plantano ($19), red snapper grilled in a banana leaf. The mango-mint salsa provides just a bit of heat and plenty of tropical flavor.
Several varieties of tacos are available. The Pescado, or fish taco, is the preferred flavor in my crowd, followed closely by the Chorizo taco. The Al Pastor was a bit of a sopping wet mess. But for $4, they are all worth a spin.
Quesadillas and enchiladas make relatively familiar appearances, though careful elegance adorns even these. The lobster stock base of the chile cream sauce in the Enchiladas de Langosta y Camarones ($22) provides mellow richness, comforting and silken.
If, after indulging in the artfully crafted dishes throughout the menu, there still remains a space for something on the sweet side, look no further than the Churros con Chocolate y Crema ($6). Soft, airy, with a crunch of cinnamon sugar, the churros are Mexican doughnut heaven.
As I dipped my churro in the tangy, cool key lime crema, I was sure I’d found my favorite sauce. Then I tasted the mildly spiced chocolate, quickly switching allegiance. But, wait, with another dip, the crema was back on top. And on it went until they were gone.
The Mexican Spiced Wine ($8) is a sweet ending itself. Red wine and tequila are warmed and sweetened with agave, vanilla, cinnamon, clove, orange and lemon. It’s like a cozy bath after a long day, lulling the diner into a contentedly good mood.
On a final note, I recommend trying a flight of tequilas. While most of us are only familiar with it in margaritas and spring break shots in Cabo, this liquor can be surprisingly pleasant. Meant to be sipped, it is closely reminiscent of brandy. Ask for a selection of young (blanco), slightly aged (reposado) and aged (anejo) to discover the full spectrum that tequila has to offer. My current favorite is the Casa Noble reposado ($12).
Milagro Cantina has some special sort of magic with its tasteful decor, brilliant menu, enviable ambiance and craftsman chef. Next time you stop in, save me a seat.