Walk into El Cielo and you'll be immediately awed by the stunning decor at this waterfront eatery in Brickell on the River. At its helm is 31-year-old Juan Manuel Barrientos, who at the age of 29 snagged a spot on the coveted list "Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants" for his original location in Medellín, which opened eight years ago. He repeated the feat in 2014, ranking 47th.
Barrientos' sensory experience is made up of 16 courses, all of which have been created and tested to elicit an emotional response in the brain. "It's a gastronomic roller coaster," Barrientos says. Miami New Times was invited for a ride.
(Warning: If Spanish isn't your language, you might have to wing it.)
The dining room has 56 seats. It's crowded, so reservations are encouraged. "For us it's really important that people feel they can stay all night, so we are prepared to just have one sitting per night." Set aside three to four hours for the experience, which costs $125 per person.
When I attended, it took 45 minutes for water to arrive. This was promptly followed by a glass tray containing Colombian empanadas and ropa vieja balls with splatters of peanut sauce. While El Cielo waits for its wine and beer license, vino is allegedly on the house -- although none was offered during my visit.
At this point, Chef Barrientos approached the table just before what he considered to be blastoff. "This is a menu we're starting with, but it's going to change," he said. "While we have a Colombian soul, we want to be respectful of the environment we work with, so we'll source items within 100 kilometers." The new menu will appear sometime after March, following El Cielo's official opening.
Why did Barrientos bring this concept to Miami? It was mostly family. "We have to live in cities we open." With his entire family here, it made sense. "Miami is also the best city I've ever been to in my life, so my excuse was to open a restaurant."
El Cielo works with a company called Mindcode in Mexico to measure and study emotional peaks and reactions in the brain caused by certain foods and experiences. "The entire menu is designed around that." But not all 16 courses are edible. "Some are just for pure sensory, like the one you have coming."
An empty bowl arrived. The course, dubbed "Rose Spa," cleanses your hands prior to the meal. "He's going to pour a liquid into your hand, and you're going to make it into a ball. Put pressure and then release." Probably one of the weirdest things I've done at a restaurant, it was definitely an experience for the senses. And though it was interesting, I'd already been there an hour and still hadn't had anything substantial to eat. Whether your stomach growling is part of the journey at El Cielo is unknown.
Next up was the tree of life -- yuca bread propped up by copper wires. A beautiful and tasty dish reminiscent of the Brazilian staple pão de queijo, it was served with a passionfruit-and-cacao dipping sauce that, much like everything else at El Cielo, I didn't really understand. Be sure to enjoy the tree of life while it's hot.
"This is our carrot air soup," the server said as he unleashed orange whip from a siphon into a bowl containing a sliver of guava. Probably the best dish of the evening, the airy yet dense carrot soup was delicious, and when spooned with the guava, it created an explosion of unexpected flavors.
At the end of the evening, when all of us received the menu (throughout "the journey," we were oblivious to what we were eating), we realized we had actually missed two courses: crab brûlée and mangocktail.
Andean pacific crudo combines pineapple vinaigrette with quinoa, tuna sashimi, and more yuca. It was another favorite of the evening.
"Black Pollock" was a beautifully plated dish of chicken (not fish) with squid ink. Although the flavors of the squid ink were on point, the sous vide preparation of the chicken fell short.
Pork loin served with Medellín "flowers," which in this case were a type of creamed spinach that was vibrant and delightful. The inconsistency in the pork ranged from my piece, which was cooked to death, to my dining companion's, which was perfectly pink.
The smoking cow -- a piece of tenderloin over sashimi-style rice -- was revealed from a smoky glass canister that elicited oohs and aahs throughout the dining room from guests new to molecular gastronomy.
"The kitchen got tired of cooking, so they just sent out a plate," the server said as he dropped off some empty celeste vessels. After asking him to repeat himself three times, we realized the joke was on us -- a thin film of invisible coconut gelatin covered the plate. What does invisible coconut gelatin taste like? Sunscreen.
"Boiled eggs" came with no silverware or instructions on how to eat them, so we let our intuition and hands guide us, which ended in a yolk explosion. Ask for a spoon and directions.
"Bocadito de amor" was really like a bite of love. The phyllo pastry cups came stuffed with lavender and offered the sweetest bite at El Cielo.
"The journey" at El Cielo came to a close with a scented Colombian rose petal that when rubbed naturally disintegrated, turning it into hand lotion, awakening the senses, and bringing everyone back to Earth. "Thank you for going with us to heaven," our server concluded.
I'd say it was more like limbo.
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