A new restaurant in old Webster Groves, Milagro Modern Mexican, is serving up fresh, made-from-scratch dishes with plenty of personality. Chef-restaurateurs Jason and Adam Tilford (Barrister’s, Tortillaria) spice-up the local Latino dining scene by going a step beyond salsa fresca and tomatillo sauce. Although you’ll find typical fare like shredded pork tacos, here they include grilled pineapple and hearty homemade corn tortillas. Cheese quesadillas are enhanced by wild mushrooms and huitlacoche (a corn fungus delicacy). In short, the food is interesting and varied, and even side dishes are impressively detailed.
The restaurant has a row of windows on one side, a large bar on the other. The decor is contemporary, not the stereotypical cantina look, with Mexican art and cool light fixtures. There are tables, booths and high bar tables, all spaced too close for privacy, but this is a casual place. It appears to be a favorite with families, so go after 7:30 if you prefer a more grown-up scene. On the other hand, daily happy hour until 6 p.m. offers half-price appetizers and $2 Coronas.
The meal starts with house-made corn chips—crisp, flavorful and surprisingly non-greasy. They come with a spicy smooth salsa. We started with guacamole ($7), tostaditas de pato ($8) and tamales de puerco ($7). The tamales were wonderful, with the traditional steamed corn masa-filled husks served open and topped with shredded pork and ancho-agave glaze. The corn filling was slightly creamy in texture, like polenta, and the pork was roasted and flavorful. The sweet, thick glaze was key, adding its layers of flavor.
Tostadas de pato are little tostada shells piled with pulled duck, bean puree, shredded cabbage and a sweet-spicy blood orange habañero sauce. Also drizzled with creamy avocado sauce, they were a must-order dish. The duck was very tender, and combined with the other ingredients, each bite was an exciting combo of flavors and textures. The guacamole, clearly made to order, was chunky with avocado and diced red onion (which I found overpowering).
It’s hard to beat house-made mole, so pollo con mole poblano (chicken mole, $15) was the first thing on our list. We also ordered enchiladas suizas de cangrejo (crabmeat enchiladas,$15), barbacoa de cordero (lamb tips, $16) and salmon yucateco (grilled salmon, $15).
The mole here is good, its most distinctive characteristic being a complexity of flavors that work well together, none jumping out at you. It’s made with dried chiles, crushed peanuts, Latino spices, ground almonds, mashed raisins and Mexican chocolate. It was a rich brown in color and in taste, sweet and well-spiced, but not ‘hot.’ It came on half a chicken, but because it came on top of skin that was not crisped, I ended up losing much of my sauce! I would recommend either browning the chicken first or taking the skin off.
The dish came with a couple of good sides: cilantro rice pilaf, a clearly house-made mix of white rice, diced red peppers and crushed cilantro; and calabacitas, grilled summer squash.
Very good was the barbacoa de cordero, a kind of lamb stew cooked tender and heavily laced with lime juice. Overriding flavors were cilantro, cumin and oregano. We ordered it with ‘street corn off the cob’ and refried black beans, both superior. The corn was very sweet and tossed with mayo and queso fresco to yield a creamed corn flavor but with whole kernels. The beans, the Cuban black variety cooked in-house, were delicious. They had the slightest bit of liquid and a creamy flavor.
The enchiladas were filled with crabmeat and spinach, a very good combination, and wrapped in delicious, full-bodied house-made corn tortillas. Creamy tomatillo sauce came on top, along with two sides. The crabmeat was plentiful and of good quality—an excellent dish.
Our salmon dish consisted of a good-sized fillet that had been marinated in achiote and grilled in a banana leaf. The grill marks on the fish were appetizing, and the salsa that topped it—mango, corn and red pepper—was colorful and good. The subtle marinade got a little lost on this strong-flavored fish. One of the sides here, chile smashed potatoes, takes the prize as best of the evening. The slightly green and creamy mound of new red potatoes had the wonderful flavors of butter and green chiles, illustrating what I see as this kitchen’s strength: balanced spicing.
Desserts are also south-of-the border style and creative. We had apple-cinnamon empanadas a la mode with caramel sauce ($6) and tres leche cupcake ($5). The empanadas, two nice-sized popovers, were completely house-made and ungreasy, hard to accomplish with empanadas. The dish had plenty of cinnamon flavor, but I would have liked to see a higher quality ice cream served. The cupcake was delicious all around, a dense yellow cake concoction sitting on a light pool of milk and topped with house-whipped cream and raspberry sauce.
Milagro has already made its mark, if the crowds are any indication. Service is a little slow, but certainly tolerable. And the Tilfords’ goal, while ambitious, is fulfilled in this little spot that serves up very high-end, fresh, gourmet Mexican food—at a more than fair price. Milagro, by the way, means ‘miracle.’
FRIJOLES CHARROS ‘COWBOY BEANS’ FROM MILAGRO MODERN MEXICAN
Milagro recommends ‘charro beans’ as an accompaniment to grilled meat dishes, like their Carne Asada.
2 cups dried pinto beans
2 quarts water
4 slices chopped bacon
¼ lbs chorizo sausage
2 tbsp garlic puree
1 diced tomato
1 roasted and chopped poblano chile
½ cup chopped cilantro
½ tbsp Kosher Salt
Pick through and rinse beans well. Bring water to boil in a large stockpot and add beans. Simmer for about 1 ½ hours. While beans are cooking, cook chopped bacon and chorizo sausage. Set aside. Once beans are cooked to tender but still firm, add bacon, chorizo, garlic puree, diced tomato and chile poblano. Simmer for another 20 minutes. Add cilantro and salt to taste. Beans should be served in a bowl with broth.