Props to an acquaintance, Jonathan, who had given me some details about Cielito that got me excited to eat here. He spoke of high quality, well-sourced fresh ingredients. That, I can get behind. My friend Eric was in town for the holidays, we were in the mood to splurge, so we came here a week or two after its opening and really enjoyed it.
The chef comes from Arigato, so I was expecting a stylized interpretation of Mexican cuisine, with good plating. Expectations were met on that level, and then exceeded by tapas style dishes that reminded me of higher end Peruvian tapas.
Eric and I agreed that the prices were reasonable if not slightly underpriced for seasonal, locally sourced fresh ingredients and housemade everything, including the tortillas and chips. We ordered 5 dishes, 1 dessert, 2 margaritas, and the bill was just shy of $100 after tax, before tip, and we brought home leftovers.
Loved the ceviche, which is prepared at a special raw bar that folks can walk up to and watch. We got the sampler ($18), which came with a basket of corn and plantain chips.
* Coctel de Atun Tropical - yellowfin tuna, mango-grapefruit salsa, citrus broth. Pictured far left.
* Ceviche Verde – local halibut, olives, avocado, red onion, pickled cabbage, tomatillo-serrano sauce, plantain chips. Pictured in the back.
* Ceviche Peruano – sea bass, aji amarillo pepper, red onion, red jalapeno, cucumber, crispy choclo, sweet potato, lime-ginger sauce. Pictured front right.
Also from the raw bar, a half dozen oysters, which came with tomatillo-habanero salsita, jalapeno minoneta and lime wedges, $14. Our server struggled a little remembering the names and origins of our oysters, but we were really grilling her on them. I wish the oysters came with little spoons, the forks it came with made it hard to get some of the juices of the accompanying sauces.
Moving onto “artisan antojitos,” we got these items:
* Empanadas de Jaiba y Camaron – two crispy corn turnovers, sauteed Mexican white shrimp, fresh crab, Mexican cheeses, tomatillo-avocado sauce, mango-habanero glaze. $12
* Sopesitos de Costilla - four crispy corn mini-boats, Negra Modela guajillo-braised short rib, black beans, avocado, fresh cheese, tomato broth. $11. We were sitting in an area of 2-tops and the tables on both sides of us ordered this as well, and everyone seemed to be enjoying them.
* Cazuela de Chorizo con Rajas - homemade Mexican chorizo, roasted poblano rajas, Sonoma jack, Manchego cheese, queso cotija, tomato broth, $10. This was the most “comforting” of all our dishes, really hot and bubbly, and came with fresh tortillas. I took some of this home and it reheated to make an awesome rajas-style taco.
For dessert, we shared the opera cake, $8. Layers of chocolate almond cake, soaked in tequila. It’s a dainty portion, but very rich and we were happy to share this between the two of us.
There’s an impressive selection of tequila, and a range of cocktails. The signature margarita is just $8, while the more mixology ones range from $10-$13.
I really liked that the small plates came with morsels that easily divided for two people, like two empanadas, and four sopes per order. Really great for sharing.
If you want something faster and more casual, there’s a separate taco and tamale counter. You can’t order from this menu in the main dining rooms, counter service only. I’m most curious about the tamales on this menu, but haven’t yet tried any.
The atmosphere was also very enjoyable, perfect for one of those dress-up nights on the town where, for a moment, we can pretend we’re dining in a bigger, more cosmopolitan city, then walk outside into our quintessential Santa Barbara tile and terracotta arcade.
Not all was not perfect! Some whingy bits:
* The ceviche assortment, while beautifully presented, was a structural disaster waiting to happen. It’s served in long-necked glasses which are top-heavy. These are then placed in a bowl of chipped ice, supposedly to hold the glasses sturdy, but the bowl itself is rounded, it’s not sturdy at all. We leaned our glasses against each other to keep them from toppling over, re-arranging them every couple minutes because once the glass tips over, there’s no saving the fish that’s fallen into a bowl of melting ice. Best to simply put the ceviche in small glass bowls nested in the larger iced bowl, then they won’t tip over and the ice may actually keep the fish chilled.
* A 2-top is not big enough for two people ordering a meal of small plates. Once two dishes were on our table, it was full and plates started overlapping, stacking and felt like a messy kitchen counter. For a place that has a strong focus on small plates in a sleek, elegant surrounding, this is constantly going to be an issue. My solution is simple enough, I’m going to ask for a bigger table next time.
Overall, very enjoyable! Loved the interpretation of central and south American food, going beyond the standard street-food style fare this town primarily offers.