Restaurant Reviews

Cielo High

If the sign of a good happy hour is strong cocktails and delicious chicken wings, all for a rock-­bottom price, then Cielo Mexican Bistro may have the best happy hour in town.

Served four at a time, the mini chicken drumsticks, coated in an ancho chile glaze with a dusting of sesame seeds, arrived at our table in an elegant white bowl. Seconds later, only the bones remained. The chicken was moist, the skin was crispy, and the glaze was a wonderful combo of sweet and spicy — definitely a recurring theme here. It left my companion and I smacking our lips wanting more. What made them taste even better was the price tag: a mere $1.95.

This was just one of 18 tapas-sized appetizers all served for the same low price during an elongated work-day happy hour that stretches from 2 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., and then kicks back into effect from 9 p.m. to closing time. The large house margaritas, served in oversized goblets requiring two-hands to lift, were big enough and potent enough to put most casual drinkers in a festive mood. And at $4.50 a pop, they were by far the most expensive item on the happy hour menu.

We tried half of the food items on the tapas list, and most of them were winners.

The batter on the fried calamari was crispy and light, and the squid was cooked well. Nothing rubbery on my plate. And it came served with a green serrano-tomatillo sauce and diced roasted tomatoes on top that provided a great kick. The beef brochette was also a victory. A row of marinated steak, grilled red onions, zucchini and mushrooms, all with tiny holes from where the chef removed the skewer, came served atop a thin bed of rice capped off with a drizzle of balsamic reduction sauce. Less spicy than some of the other dishes, this little number still packed a flavorful punch.

Our waiters, who were animated and engaging, the way they should be at a happy hour, suggested the avocado roll. Again, it had great flavor, but was a tad rich. The roll was thick and not very crispy, almost like donut dough, and the stuffing of cheese along with the creamy avocado seemed to be overkill. Plus, the maple chile sauce smeared on the plate beneath the roll was extremely sweet. In contrast, however, the duck spring roll tasted light and refreshing. The duck was cooked perfectly, thin strips of cucumber and carrot inside offered a nice crunch mixed in with the vermicelli, and it paired perfectly with a balsamic dipping sauce with chopped peanuts floating on top.

Unfortunately, there were a couple of duds that Wednesday afternoon. The mushroom tamale was overcooked and was so dry we couldn't pry it out of the cornhusk, though the little bit we could get to tasted pretty good. And the tuna tartar tostada was kind of a mess. The tuna tasted fishy and could have used a bit more acid, plus it did not complement the cheese or the beans that were used on the tostada as a glue to keep the dish from falling apart. Overall the portions are not huge, but in this case it was a blessing.

All that said, no matter how you slice it, Cielo serves up Mexican food with an upscale twist for such low happy hour prices — four drinks and a whopping nine dishes cost only $41 — it almost sounds silly complaining about any of it.

Houston restaurant magnate Youssef Nafaa, who owns a number of eateries including Mia Bella, opened Cielo in December at 300 Main downtown, where St. Pete's Dancing Marlin used to be. Just next door, Nafaa also opened Collin's Chop House & Whiskey Bar, which specializes in steaks. The two restaurants share a kitchen, though Cielo is clearly the more casual and affordable of the pair.

Recently, the Main Street corridor has been a place where restaurants go to die. In the past two years alone, nearly a dozen in the area have closed down. But Nafaa knows this neck of the woods better than almost anyone. His Cava Bistro across the street from Cielo is still open, and nearby Mia Bella is an institution. So it makes sense that if anyone would have the balls to open not one, but two, new restaurants on Main Street, it would be Nafaa. Plus, a $200,000 retail incentive grant from the Houston Downtown Management District doesn't hurt either. Nafaa and the management district are doing all they can to revitalize the area, the only real walking promenade in Houston, which eaters all but abandoned during and after the three years it took the city to build the Metro rail.

To lure in hungry customers, Nafaa has created not only a recession-friendly happy hour menu, but also a beautiful, relaxing space for diners to enjoy. Two walls of windows look out onto the Hotel Icon on one side and Main Street on the other, and accentuate the exposed brick and dark-wood interior. A long bar with televisions mounted overhead lead down towards the dining area, where one lucky table gets to sit ensconced in a nook of colorful wine bottles stacked on soaring wood shelves. There is also an outdoor patio facing Main Street, which makes for entertaining people watching.

Breezing through the restaurant in coral-colored shirts and black pants are the waitstaff, who were attentive and helpful on all three occasions I visited. The place was usually about half full, mostly with lawyers and businessmen, and the occasional UH-Downtown student eager for inexpensive eats.

The lunch and dinner menu is the same, and boasts a range of traditional Tex-Mex such as enchiladas and fajitas, but also chicken, steak and fish, all with a twist. I would be remiss if I did not mention that every meal starts off with free chips and a pair of absolutely addictive salsas — a mild roasted tomato puree and a spicy jalapeño and avocado salsa with sour cream and garlic.

Roasting a chicken isn't as easy as it sounds, but Cielo pulled it off expertly. Slathered in a rich, sweet and spicy ancho chile sauce, the half-chicken was juicy and seasoned well, and it came with sliced rounds of carrots, turnips and rutabaga, as well as crispy hand-cut fries topped with grated cheese and cilantro. The portion was huge and cost $11.95. A true bargain. The pork tenderloin, served with sautéed plantains in a wonderfully spicy coconut maple chili sauce, was another standout. Not too sweet, with a nice peppery aftertaste.

All of the entrees are reasonably priced, none exceeding the $20 mark. Three of them plus a pair of appetizers cost less than $60. Sadly, though, not all the meals were as delicious as the ancho chicken and pork tenderloin.

The jalapeño-balsamic glazed salmon was moist and cooked well, but was essentially candied, reducing a healthy fish to a sugary treat. My dinner companion said that the flavor was good, but the salmon was so sweet that she wouldn't order it again. Then there were the ancho pork ribs. Someone must have left them in the oven and forgotten about them, because they were so overcooked that they were literally inedible. The meat was sinewy and dry, and I got the feeling I could chew it for a year and never make a dent.

On balance, Cielo is a fun place with many of the components that make up a terrific restaurant. Though much of the fare tends toward the sweet and heavy, as one waiter told me, the kitchen is still making adjustments to the menu and to how certain dishes are prepared. In these tough economic times, however, it's refreshing to see inventive semi-upscale food sold for, relatively speaking, the price of a song. If Cielo can keep these low prices, and if it keeps tweaking the menu, with its delightful service, beautiful interior and kick-ass happy hour, Nafaa is poised to have another Main Street success in his repertoire.

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Chris Vogel
Contact: Chris Vogel