Corn smut is a fungus that blights corn, causing husk-busting growths that look as if they should be floating in jars in a mad scientist's lab. In Mexico, where it is called huitlacoche, corn smut is a delicacy. You rarely find huitlacoche on the menus of Mexican restaurants in the United States — certainly not here in St. Louis, where making a margarita with fresh-squeezed lime juice and Cointreau rather than premade sour mix and no-name triple sec is considered edgy.
Now, however, at Milagro Modern Mexican, which opened in April in Webster Groves, you can order two dishes featuring huitlacoche: quesadillas tradicionales and enfrijoladas de hongos.
I went with the quesadillas, an appetizer. These are not quesadillas as we Americans know them. Rather, they resemble empanadas: a thin, crisp shell of fried corn masa stuffed with Chihuahua cheese and finely chopped and sautéed huitlacoche and wild mushrooms. The tangy cheese comprises the bulk of the filling, but the huitlacoche is what elevates the dish, its flavor earthy like a mushroom but also pleasantly sweet. The quesadillas are served atop a swirl of chipotle-lime sauce with pico de gallo on the side, a combo that gives the dish an extra pop.
In recent years this column has celebrated more than a few taquerias, and regular readers know that few foods give me more pleasure than tacos al pastor. Yet I walk away from even my favorite local Mexican restaurants feeling a tinge of sadness. This is but a sliver of authentic Mexican cuisine, and the chances to broaden my horizons are fewer than I would like.
As its name makes abundantly clear, Milagro Modern Mexican aims to change that. It isn't the first area restaurant to try to expand beyond the holy triumvirate of chips, salsa and margaritas — Agave made a noble attempt from the fall of 2007 until last summer — but Milagro might have the ingredients necessary not simply to offer diners something different, but to keep us coming back for more.
Its name aside, as soon as you enter Milagro, you will observe that this is not the typical Mexican restaurant. The look is cool and clean, with muted earth tones and stone accents. The décor evokes Mexico without hitting you over the head with it. In other words, as far as I could tell, there are no Day of the Dead skeletons or lucha libre masks.
Milagro is the latest venture from brothers Adam and Jason Tilford, who previously collaborated on Tortillaría, a somewhat more conventional Mexican restaurant in the Central West End. Jason also runs Barrister's in Clayton and is the executive chef of Grand Center newcomer Kota Wood Fire Grill. When I reviewed Kota in May ("Kota Many Colors," May 20, 2010), I was impressed by the focus and creativity Jason brought to a restaurant that very easily could have pandered to the theatergoing crowd.
He is up to something similar here — and something even more interesting. Tostadas, that bland staple, are presented here as tostadas de pato, the fried tortillas smeared with a black-bean purée and then piled high with pulled duck, cabbage spiked with lime juice and a lovely blood orange-habanero sauce, sweet and hot. These are served as an appetizer, five to an order arranged over a tart, cooling tomatillo-avocado sauce.
Enchiladas are not drowned in cheese. In fact, enchiladas suizas de cangrejo contain no cheese whatsoever. Instead three corn tortillas are stuffed with spinach and generous hunks of lump crab meat, then topped with a creamy, lightly spicy green tomatillo sauce. Tomatillo also provides tartness to a terrific mole verde that tops a grilled mahi mahi fillet. The fish in this dish was a little overcooked, but the sauce was so good, bursting with spice and the heat of fresh chiles, that I barely noticed. Pepitas (pumpkin seeds) added crunch and rounded out the flavor with a light nutty quality.
Even more complex than the mole verde is the mole poblano that accompanies a roasted half-chicken. The dusky flavor of poblano chile is the backbone of this sauce, with a definite — though not, as sometimes transpires, overwhelming — note of dark chocolate and a mélange of spices that work well enough together that trying to pick out the individual flavors is pointless. Raisins add sweetness, peanuts and almonds a little depth. So complex is the sauce that, as with the mahi mahi, you overlook the flaws in the meat. Here the chicken needed a little more attention as it roasted: The white meat was drier than the dark, and the skin hadn't properly crisped.
(If there is an overarching issue with Milagro, it is this occasional lack of attention to detail. I was served guacamole that had oxidized in several spots to an unappetizing brown. And though I visited when the restaurant was very busy and when it was relatively quiet, servers at both times failed to check in with the table as often as they should have.)
Not every dish here requires a complex sauce. The salmon yucateco is a clean, brightly flavored standout: a perfectly tender piece of fish marinated in achiote (the seasoning behind my beloved tacos al pastor), grilled while wrapped in a banana leaf and then topped with a salsa of fresh mango, cilantro and annatto oil. Order the chile relleno and you'll receive a very lightly breaded poblano pepper overflowing with mushrooms, zucchini and jack cheese and topped with a rich roasted-tomato sauce.
The only disappointing dish I tried at Milagro was...tacos al pastor. I loved the plump pieces of pineapple tossed with the pork, but the meat itself was dramatically underseasoned.
Two side dishes are especially notable: The charro beans — pinto beans cooked with bacon, chorizo, tomato and chiles — are smoky and spicy and absurdly good. And corn "off the cob" is a tasty take on the beloved Mexican street food, the sweet kernels amped with garlic mayonnaise and queso fresco.
And, yes, you can get margaritas, chips and salsa here. The top-shelf margarita is worth the extra bucks for its smooth tequila flavor cut with fresh lime juice. The wine selection is negligible. Weirdly, a bottle of Sol — a Mexican beer best (maybe only) enjoyed on a hot Mexican beach — is the same price as Bell's Two-Hearted Ale.
Milagro's overall execution doesn't yet quite meet its ambitions. But in a town where you can make a lot of money slinging rice and beans and ground beef in "crispy" taco shells, the Tilfords have taken a chance to give us something more. It's worthy of our attention, if for that reason only. I know I'll be back — and not merely because I'm helpless to resist smut.
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