Que Milagro

Cien Años provides a century's worth of Mexican-food miracles.

I have always been a fan of Gabriel García Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, a chronicle of the glories and disasters of the mythical Buendia family, blending the miraculous with history, the ordinary with magical realism. Who can't love a world where fish swim in and out of windows and beautiful women ascend to heaven as they do the laundry? In the mythical town of Macondo, miracles happen on a regular basis.

Sometimes I still wish for a milagro or two when I drive to the northwest side. Once upon a time, while driving north to Oracle one passed through a timeless zone, one of undisturbed wilderness, old-growth saguaros and undisturbed life.

Then the bulldozers came.

And thus Oro Valley was born. In this sprawl of tract housing, each house worse than the last, one now contemplated clear and imminent extinction, replete with Circle K--as if the poor inhabitants now labored under a spell, their own hellish version of one hundred years not of solitude, but of sprawl. Instead of Macondo they should have called it My Condo.

Things were not looking pretty. Not only that, but there wasn't anywhere to eat. Why Rafael Martinez and Santiago Woolfolk decided to pick this particular spot to unveil the magic of Cien Años is beyond the kith or kin of reality, but perhaps this is how magical realism works best: It defies any plausible form of logic.

The cuisine of Mexico City calls to mind Old World elegance and a stately sense of presentation. From the moment you enter the restaurant, time slows. An elegant and lavish setting alerts you to the notion that this will be an affair to remember. Though it's a small venue, only about 15 tables, someone has designed the space for a luxurious sense of ease. The well-appointed dining room is tastefully decorated in plum and camel colors. Lovely, large flower arrangements, voluptuous bowls of fresh figs, a silver platter of tamarind, a mound of fresh fruit all blur and blend where the exhibition kitchen stops and the dining room begins. This festive allure promises miracles on a small and personal scale. And perhaps these are the best miracles of all.

The menu is a pleasure to read. Each page possesses a sumptuous sense of grandeur, presenting a nice range of offerings without teetering into the realm of pure excess. We were also delighted to find ingredients that indicate an unadulterated take on a traditional cuisine: chipotle, tamarind, achiote, mole, cuiclacoche, all ingredients that spell out their own singular tastes and appeal. Settling in for the evening, we were ready for some magic to be unleashed.

And it arrived in the form of the Ostociones Azteca ($9), dramatically plated on a large silver fish platter. Tiny attention to detail (cheesecloth-wrapped lemon, a miniature bottle of Tabasco) signaled that we were in very good hands. One bite of the oysters confirmed nothing short of the miraculous: plump, delicately baked oysters dotted with cuiclacoche and Chihuahua cheese opened up into an array of dark, seductive flavors. Cuiclacoche (a corn fungus) rarely appears north of the border simply because of its coveted status. Its deeply dramatic flavor added a dark twist to the oysters. Chihuahua cheese, with its slightly gamy flavor, turned this into a dramatic dish that haunts the imagination long after the dining experience is over.

We moved on to the Crema de Cilantro ($7) simply because so many tureens of it were surfacing on tables throughout the room. One sip explained why. A complex and seductive combination of flavors, this creamy and rich soup is a treat from start to finish. The cilantro is not too muted, but, buoyed by the tart and glossy broth, has sweet tones that are creamy without being too rich, showcasing the light and sustained high notes of cilantro, just kissed by the tart presence of tomatillo. This is one sublime sopa.

The Ceviche de Camaron ($8) served in a semi glass globe was straightforward: cooked shrimp, peeled and adrift in a pico de gallo salsa. The salsa showed well with its fresh and assertive flavors. All in all, the stage was set, and we couldn't wait to see what the kitchen would sail forward next.

The Costilla de Puerco en Tomatillo con Queso ($18) yielded two thick pork chops cooked until just pink, served in a sparky tomatillo sauce. Its accompaniment of a rice pilaf spiked with corn, green chiles and cream turned out to be a winning combination. The tomatillo sauce, lively and with just the right amount of tart flavors, pulled the dish together in a smart and satisfying way.

Codornices en Salsa de Mango ($15) materialized as a very plump Cornish hen stuffed with figs, wrapped with spinach and baked in a mango sauce. This weighty hen might have been on steroids as it dominated most of the plate, but it was cooked until tender. And a properly roasted fig can bring about a pure moment of religious inspiration in the most stalwart of souls.

The only misstep we encountered was in the Camarones al Chipotle ($18). A tantalizing promise of grilled shrimp with tamarind and chipotle sauce was served with not a drop of tamarind. The shrimp were succulent and grilled correctly, and there was just the right warmth from the chipotle to impart a smoky heat, but instead of tamarind the kitchen (on this evening) used raspberry. The tiny flecks of raspberry seed and the sweet berry flavor worked with chipotle, but tamarind had been promised and it was sorely missed.

Despite the fact that the restaurant was packed, service was excellent. Our server kept the meal properly paced. Toward the end, drinks were not replenished and dessert service was a bit rushed, but the overall impression of the service carried through the restaurant's mission of Old World gentility. Given the remarkably reasonable prices, we finished our dinner feeling as if we'd stepped into another world of indulgence and certainly at the right price.

Desserts are simple and elegant. The flan was pure and simple, caramelized with the right amount of syrup pooled around the edges. Tres Leches, an indulgent and tender cake, is nostalgic of happy birthday parties and milky bliss. Both were savored with an expansive after-dinner coffee.

If you can bear the endless drive north, Cien Años casts a spell of dreamy magic. Whether you have a special occasion, a rendezvous with your beloved or you simply choose to indulge yourself with the momentary enchantment found at Cien Años, chances are you'll find whatever small miracle you're looking to embrace. They might as well have called it Macondo.