Restaurant review: Barrio, a new Capitol Hill Mexican restaurant from the backers of Seattle's Purple Café, bursts with urban energy and beautiful people, and dishes such as a seared-halibut and vegetable escabeche taco; pork-cheek tamale; and sea-scallops and mango ceviche. 2.5-star review from Providence Cicero.
The aptly named Heavy Restaurant Group has developed a signature look that’s weighty in the most literal sense of the word. Anyone who’s ever heaved open the doors at any of the three Purple Cafes will recognize Barrio on Capitol Hill as their Mexican cousin.
The Purple people conceive on a grand scale. Barrio blends ancient and modern to stunning effect. The front door is as imposing as any hacienda’s. The steel-framed, tinted windows along the street need mechanical lifts to fold them up and out of the way. Hundreds of faux pillar candles outfitted with oil-burning lamps illuminate niches that run floor-to-ceiling, separating dining room and bar.
The bar, a sinuous stretch of mosaic, resembles a sleeping anaconda unperturbed by the elbows of customers hoisting clove-scented sangria, or graceful wine goblets or kick-ass margaritas. Colossal cocktail shakers allow bartenders to mix up to a dozen of the latter at once: smoky with reposada tequila, gentled with Essencia (a fortified orange Muscat wine) and thickly rimmed with salt.
Those bartenders are as nimble as the wait staff when it comes to the niceties of dinner service for those eating at the bar, as many do, balanced on bouncy chairs that exercise your core muscles as you chew.
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Tables, counters and cocoonlike booths are other seating options. Position yourself on the far right at the kitchen counter and watch cooks pipe batter into the deep-fryer for terrific churros, or hand-press dough for corn tortillas destined for tacos that are inventive, albeit unremarkable.
The only taco I’d hanker for again held seared halibut with tangy vegetable escabeche. Salmon was dry with mushy jicama slaw. Others were merely middling. All are expensive: prices for a single taco range from $3.75 to $5.50.
Most Mexican restaurants trot out salsa and chips for free. Here $7 buys two salsas. But I’d rather invest in one of the three ceviches served with salty yucca chips (though I’d skip the sampler trio, which doesn’t showcase them nearly as well as individual portions). Combinations include halibut with pineapple, salmon with avocado, or Serrano-spiked sea scallops and mango, my favorite for its nuanced textures and thrilling interplay of sweet and heat.
I also loved the chilled chile relleno, a large poblano plump with a summery salad of shrimp, cherry tomatoes and guacamole. Slivers of dry chorizo add sizzle; a creamy corn sauce cools the heat.
Cheese enchiladas topped with julienned zucchini and mole amarillo needed help — key limes, hot sauce and coarse salt — from the condiment plate that mostly (though not always) accompanies your meal.
Braised short ribs and roast chicken were outstanding. The beef, smothered in a very refined sauce, was as yielding as the rounds of sautéed zucchini beneath it. Crisp, salty skin covered the juicy chicken breast; a soft masa cake on the side soaked up creamy hazelnut pipian sauce and Serrano syrup like a sponge.
Crisp, golden triangles of fried masa cake are delicious dabbed with ancho salsa and queso anejo. They, as well as the tender pork-cheek tamale, are ideal for absorbing an evening of cocteles, or several rounds of tequila, served neat with a traditional sangria chaser. For a morning-after pick-me-up, try pork-cheek pozole, a soup thick with meat and hominy, tangy with tomato and lime. At brunch it’s crowned with a fluffy poached egg.
Also on the brunch menu: sope de huevos revueltos, a zesty eye-opener with layers of crumbled chorizo, scrambled eggs and fresh tomato salsa heaped on a tender corn pancake. Polish off the sinfully rich shrimp and grits — six grilled shrimp arrayed over creamy cornmeal porridge studded with chorizo bacon bits and drizzled with tomatillo sauce — and you’ll be ready for a siesta.
Napping is out of the question at night, when Barrio abounds with urban energy and beautiful people, with birthday parties and brides-to-be having their final fling. The package isn’t perfect, but it’s prettily wrapped, and presented with considerable style.
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