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Seventh Heaven

Seventh Heaven

Rebecca Cha
From tacos to tequilas, maiz to mezcal, classic meets inventive on Casi Cielo's menu.

Sandy Springs’ Casi Cielo lives up to its name

From tacos to tequilas, maiz to mezcal, classic meets inventive on Casi Cielo's menu.
From tacos to tequilas, maiz to mezcal, classic meets inventive on Casi Cielo’s menu.
Casi Cielo's outdoor dining space is a perfect spot to gather with friends, catch some sun and sip on refreshing cocktails.
Casi Cielo’s outdoor dining space is a perfect spot to gather with friends, catch some sun and sip on refreshing cocktails.

Casi Cielo means “almost heaven” in Spanish and aptly sums up what I feel about this Oaxacan-inspired restaurant on the ground floor of the Modera apartment complex in Sandy Springs. The powers-that-be have spared no expense to manifest the Mexican state’s soulful spirit with midcentury modern interiors that exude rustic elegance with wall-to-wall earth tones of pale amber and gold, as well as Cantera stone. The decorative ceiling continues the celestial theme with a carved latticework of stars and huge, sun-like cylindrical fixtures.

Veggie lovers will delight in this milhojas de verduras, a napoleon loaded with sliced eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes, topped with cotija cheese.
Veggie lovers will delight in this milhojas de verduras, a napoleon loaded with sliced eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes, topped with cotija cheese.

During our first visit, we indulged in refreshing fruit-herb infused water (the infusion changes daily) while perusing the menu. Our server directed our attention to the impressive mezcal collection, one of the largest in Atlanta, with a myriad of bottles standing at attention on a ledge behind the bar. Alipus, Nucano and Gracias a Dios, to name a few, were all waiting like sirens to tempt our palates.

Casi Cielo's melt-in-your-mouth sea bass is dusted with achiote and topped with fresh corn puree. To drink? Smoky Old Fashioned, of course!
Casi Cielo’s melt-in-your-mouth sea bass is dusted with achiote and topped with fresh corn puree. To drink? Smoky Old Fashioned, of course!

The specialty cocktails deserve an evening unto themselves. There are the tequila-based drinks such as La LLorona, an eye-popping blend of Patron Reposado, tongue-tingling lime and jalapeño juices. You might also find soul-centering with the Chilerita margarita, a raspberry-hued cocktail of Framboise and Herradura Silver in a grasshopper salt-rimmed tumbler.

Mezcal lovers will be drawn to the lusty, earth-smoke aromas of the Torito, a pungent and profound blend of roasted pineapple and espadín mezcal. And those who prefer a touch of dinner theater should order the Smoky Old Fashioned. The cocktail is fruitwood smoked under glass then brought to the table for the plume-y, aromatic reveal.

Rich with butternut squash, heirloom carrots and a touch of cream, this sopa de calabaza is a seasonal showstopper.
Rich with butternut squash, heirloom carrots and a touch of cream, this sopa de calabaza is a seasonal showstopper.

Despite what you may be thinking, we were, in fact, consuming food, commencing with the pulpo al carbón, tender, blistergrilled octopus atop crunchy homemade chicharrón (fried pork rind) and pan-roasted potatoes accompanied by a creamy chile caribe aioli.

Following that were tacos de pescado, juicy chunks of seasoned mahimahi tucked neatly into housemade blue corn tortillas and accented with coleslaw, chipotle aioli and aguacatada, a seasoned avocado puree. Vegetarian diners can’t beat the meaty portobello tacos topped with red onion and bright cilantro leaves.

Pankofried croquetas de plantano y manchego are a crunchy, cheesy menu favorite.
Pankofried croquetas de plantano y manchego are a crunchy, cheesy menu favorite.

Dessert is the promised land for kids on review duty, and so we indulged. Molten chocolate cake is nothing new, but here, the guajillo chile-infused cake sings, the warm mahogany crust slowly melting the scoop of coconut ice cream on top.

The alebrije (deconstructed cheesecake) was a bride’s bouquet of whites and creams, and crystalized violets. The mellow, familiar dairy flavors were nuanced, restrained and not overly sweet. The kids happily whacked away with their spoons while the adults rounded out the night with a game of musical cocktails until not a sip remained.

Crisp tacos de pescado: seasoned mahimahi in blue corn torillas accented with coleslaw, chipotle aioli and creamy avocado sauce. ¡Delicioso!
Crisp tacos de pescado: seasoned mahimahi in blue corn torillas accented with coleslaw, chipotle aioli and creamy avocado sauce. ¡Delicioso!

On a follow-up evening, the chef regaled us with seasonal dishes, starting with the silky sopa de calabaza, butternut squash soup like a bowl of noonday sun. Rich with heirloom carrots, squash and cream, and topped with neon orange guajillo chile oil, it was a table favorite. The cilantro-fragrant guacamole, made moments earlier in the molcajeta (mortar and pestle), was topped with fried kale.

Casi Cielo's mezcal tastings come with verdita (a housemade green juice chaser), an orange slice and a fried grasshopper.
Casi Cielo’s mezcal tastings come with verdita (a housemade green juice chaser), an orange slice and a fried grasshopper.

But main courses proved to be the highlight. Vegetarians will swoon over the massive milhojas de verduras, a veggie napoleon made with thin slices of eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes and mushrooms, and served with basil-jalapeño pesto and cotija cheese. One must not bypass the Chilean sea bass (sometimes called lubina), a massive 10-ounce portion of buttery, snowwhite fish. Topped with fresh corn puree and dusted with achiote (annatto spice) and chile caribe, the sweet, tender flesh is somewhere between lobster claw meat and fresh sea scallops. I suggest calling ahead and reserving a portion for your visit as it runs out fast.

At our final (spontaneous) happy hour pop-in, the gracious manager, Jonathan McKinney, led us through a couple of mezcal flights. While describing various types of agave, ripening age and fermentation methods, he proffered small plates of nibbles. First was a quesadilla of huitlacoche, a funky corn fungus often referred to as Mexican truffle. More pleasing to me were the croquetas, meatball-size orbs filled with mashed sweet plantains and manchego cheese, panko-fried and served atop a sweet, floral guajillo and morita mole rojo (red mole sauce with dried chiles).

Three hours later, we were still there, sipping shot glasses of housemade verdita (a green juice accompaniment) and engrossed in discussions of clay pot versus copper distillation.

Casi Cielo's alebrije (deconstructed cheesecake) is a subtle and nuanced take on a classic.
Casi Cielo’s alebrije (deconstructed cheesecake) is a subtle and nuanced take on a classic.

It’s unlikely you’ll find an ambassador of Mexican cuisine in Atlanta on par with Casi Cielo. If you pay attention, you will be transformed and transported by the place and its cuisine; it wouldn’t surprise me if—having arrived with no Spanish language skills—you leave with words tripping mellifluously off your tongue. It’s mi oración (my prayer) that they stay put or even expand. Casi Cielo—almost heaven indeed.

CASI CIELO

6125 Roswell Road, Suite 200
Atlanta 30328
404.549.9411
casicieloatl.com

Prices: appetizers, soups and salads: $6 – $18; quesadillas, tacos and bowls: $12 – $18; main dishes: $15 – $43; desserts: $9.

Recommended: charcoal-grilled octopus, butternut squash soup, portobello tacos, mahi-mahi tacos, plantain croquettes, vegetable napoleon, Chilean sea bass.

Bottom line: As good as regional Mexican food gets in Atlanta, this neighborhood gem is a triple hit of winning staff, exquisite cuisine and gorgeous decor. What are you waiting for?

PHOTOS: Joann Vitelli

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