I may have gotten bonked on the head by a coconut at Mirasol.
I don't know how else to explain my gastronomic amnesia about the place. Both times I've had dinner there, I remember sitting down with my friends, taking in the bold, Caribbean-colored walls and the black cast-iron trellises that separate the reservable tables in the back from the pair of long, communal dining tables up front. I remember pondering the menu up and down and asking the knowledgeable server many questions -- ten-week-old Mirasol's cuisine is "Nuevo Latino" in content and tapas-style in form, so not only must you select lots of small, shareable plates to put together a meal, but you must also decipher lots of pan-Latin keywords, such as ajiaco, chalupitas, anticuchos, estofada criolla and ceviche (that last one a popular genre of Latin American appetizer virtually unseen in these parts, in which raw fish is marinated in lime or other citrus juices, allowing the juice's acidity to "cook" the fish, firming its flesh).
We had ourselves some cocktails, I do recall. The mojitos and caipirinhas -- the signature tipples of Cuba and Brazil, respectively -- could not have been more suavely concocted, while a velvety Key Lime (Bacardi Coco, Cointreau, Licor 43, lime juice and cream) came festooned with a little flower, a strong indication that this is a restaurant that goes out of its way.
On both visits the Honduran ceviche arrived first, not long after we placed our order: blushing tuna, cubed, sitting in a mild coconut-milk bath, garlanded with bits of ginger, all of it convening seductively in a carved-out coconut shell, with tall plantain chips and a couple of flower blossoms sticking out of the top like plumage. Both times I bore witness to this thing, I thought it so fancy and lavish that I almost couldn't believe it was true. If I were on a Jamaican honeymoon, then yes, I'd expect to see something like this on a plate before me. But this was just a Tuesday-night dinner in the Loop; how could this be?
And that's where I lose it. From that moment forward until the check arrived, dinner at Mirasol was an endless, breathless fugue of plates arriving left and right, of foods and flavors knocking my mouth on its ass. Even with taking notes in the bathroom, I've only retained flashes of greatness, which is why I'm convinced somebody took that ceviche coconut and threw it at my head.
There was the hearts of palm salad, served in an angled bowl that resembles those mod, egg-shape chairs people used to have and featuring the heartiest hearts of palm I've ever seen, so fleshy and weighty that it bums you out to realize just how wimpy the canned supermarket kind truly are. The mahi mahi, another ceviche dish, looked like long, slender pieces of chicken breast but tasted like soft virgin flesh, exquisitely accompanied by a melon and cilantro salad. A plate of short ribs, stuffed with calabaza (squash) and served alongside slices of dried peaches in a red wine sauce, was too tender to require a knife -- all you had to do was whisper sweet nothings to it and the meat capitulated. And while a queso fundido was simply a plate of tortillas and goat cheese topped with bacon-like pieces of vaca frita (fried beef), it didn't shortchange one bit; in fact, it caused my friend Patrick to comment rightly, "You could put goat cheese on a shoe and I'd be like, 'Awesome!'"
On my first visit, somebody else at the table remained composed enough to pre-order the soufflé-like, lava-centered chocolate cake, which takes about fifteen minutes to make and about thirty-five seconds to devour, molten center be damned. Other desserts include a coffee-flavored flan, rice pudding, a fresh-fruit sundae (pineapple, papaya and other tropical treats perched atop a scoop of banana or coconut-almond ice cream, festooned with chocolate sauce, whipped cream and Brazilian nuts), and a hunka-hunka bread pudding that three of us put together could not finish.
The head mastermind behind Mirasol, Modesto founder Brendan Marsden, went out and found the idea for this latest endeavor while visiting other American cities, looking for something new to bring back to St. Louis dining. Latin American cuisine is traditionally served family-style; the tapas concept comes in simply because that's what Mardsen knows from Modesto. When he opened Modesto in 2001, it only took a couple of years for other local restaurateurs to latch on -- these days you can't swing a bottle of Rioja in these parts without hitting a tapas joint. So maybe that's where the amnesia came from: the time-warp effect created when a terrific new restaurant audaciously arrives before its time.