Occupying the ground level of a Brickell high-rise, El Cielo (or is it ElCielo as spelled on their website?) is currently celebrating a three-year anniversary. Three. Years. In Miami? Bravo! Needless to say, it took me a while to visit this Colombian restaurant chain by chef Juan Manuel Barrientos Valencia (known as Juanma).
He opened his first restaurant in Medellín by age 23, after working alongside chefs Komiyama and Arzak. The Bogotá and South Florida locations followed. Chef Juanma enjoyed a spot on the Latin America’s Best Restaurants list by S. Pellegrino from 2013 to 2015, the youngest ever to be included in the ranking at the time.
To be honest, I hesitated each time I thought about making a reservation. Unless we are talking about Chicago’s Alinea (and the reason you won’t find me at Barton G. or Nusr–Et), I’m not really into overly gimmicky dinners. From all the advertising and social media posts (and there are many), I figured I’d have to navigate through smoke and fluff just to get to the food. By the time dinner ended, with a full-on smoke show, of course, I pondered just how many times I would want to relive that experience now that I knew what it entailed. More on that in a bit.
Earth-inspired accents set against all-white interiors and the Miami River as a backdrop create the ultimate ambiance for an exclusive culinary journey. Upon walking in, and given the open prep area is located dead-center, I couldn’t help but notice the kitchen staff’s uniforms. As if on an episode of The Leftovers-sans cigarettes- they donned all white coats complete with headcovers (similar to that of a beekeeper’s suit). Intense, I thought.
Dinner options on the menu varied: The Visit $65, The Journey $89, and The Experience $119 (also available as a modified pescetarian option). I chose to splurge and go all in with The Experience. But first, I needed wine. With no corkage fee offered, our party studied the wine list and settled on a bottle to pair with the tasting. Initially, a wine retailing several hundred dollars more than the one ordered was presented tableside and at below room temperature. “Oh, the cellar is not working properly,” said the waiter. I suppose we could have kept and chilled the wine, but, you know, honesty and all. The right bottle finally appeared, but the rocky service continued with spilled wine during the pours and the need for self-service throughout dinner. Let’s just say it took a little bit for the night to find its groove. And it mostly did.
At El Cielo, the courses are referred to as “moments.” Predictably, and adding zero value, my least favorite moments involved tricks and visuals. They didn’t take over every course as I thought they would, but I’m still questioning their inclusion. After a brief lets-pour-hot-water-over-towels-and-watch-them-grow act, the waiter slowly drizzled white chocolate all over my hands and encouraged me to try it (as in, lick my fingers): White Chocotherapy. The leche-condensada tasting liquid felt warm and sensual for a few seconds. The fun and interest faded quickly as I sat there with sticky-hands figuring out when I’d be able to run off and wash them with soap.
There was also the clumsily executed Banana dessert. Served plainly on a plate, the waiter paused for effect and made sure I took a good look before instructing me to turn the fruit over. Starry-eyed, he watched closely expecting me to gasp with equal excitement to match his, but I couldn’t. It looked like it had been sliced with a Play-Doh knife by my nine-year-old. I peeled off the banana to reveal a chocolate and pureed banana concoction underneath. Insert blank stare here. I wonder if the award-winning sister Colombia location also includes this moment on their menu?
For the grand finale, our waiter proudly announced I’d be having the best coffee in the world: Colombian coffee. Using a pour-over method, he prepped the coffee tableside while describing the ingredients of the accompanying macarons and jellies. He then explained how the chef felt inspired by the feeling evoked when enjoying that first-morning cup surrounded by dense fog at Colombian coffee plantations. And just like that- poof- smoke appeared and covered everything on the table as he poured watery coffee into my cup. Pero, why? No mas tricks, please. To compare, at Alinea, there’s a starter course involving orange-scented smoke. The result is an impeccably executed aromatic performance used to transitions dishes. Once the smoke is released, the fragrance of invigorating real oranges coming off a centerpiece intensifies as a magical version of orange-spiced globes is served. As I see it, that’s a purposeful “trick.” But alas, I continued with my best smile and focused on capturing those very Instagrammable seconds.
Thankfully, those three overly-hyped courses didn’t cross over to the rest of the menu. The dramatically staged, and much-photographed Tree of Life held my attention. Beautifully presented atop a copper wire vessel resembling a tree, the piping-hot yuca bread easily pulled apart at the light touch of my fingers: doughy and comforting as every bread should be.
A parade of visually-pleasing small plates began shortly afterward. The Black & Yellow Soup (Quinoa + Egg + Golden Beets) emerged as delicate and savory art on a plate. Once again encouraging a playful sense of touch, the bite-sized Snack Duo of crab croquetas brought a little bit of snap, crackle, and mole pop to the table.
Other highlights included the Salmon Tartare which arrived hidden within a nest of finely sliced green apple noodles. The combination of the silky cold fish against the crisp fruit refreshed the palate and paved the way to heartier dishes. Authentically criollo, the Farmer’s Chicken and (sticky) Atollado Rice surprised as the most no-frills and unexpected item off the menu. The Potato Milhojas sandwiched coconut-curry pork within highly-enjoyable salty and crispy layers of thinly-cut potatoes.
After the banana course and before the smoke act, a Coconut and Pineapple custard arrived inside a bowl. Topped with a layer of frothy bubbles and a generous spoonful of honey, this creamy and decadent dish easily became the dessert highlight of the night.
Even with its high moments, I don’t this is a dinner I’m likely to repeat anytime soon. I’m satisfied checking it off my bucket list and moving on. Walking away, I needed to crave more than just the yuca bread for it to be on my rotation list. I simply cannot justify the $500 or so price tag (including wine, tax, and tip) when I feel the uniqueness they hoped for fell short. In South Florida, you can dine comfortably at Bazaar, The Forge, or Le Sirenuse for that cost: dinners I’d run to in comparison. Truth be told, if it wasn’t because of my photos and notes, there’s little I would have remembered on earth about El Cielo. And that’s a shame.
El Cielo Miami
31 SE 5th St.
Miami, FL 33131