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Raising the ‘Bar’

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“Barrio,” a Spanish word meaning district or neighborhood, is an apt name for restaurateur Spencer Rothschild’s (Calle Ocho, BLT Prime, Rain) two-month-old Park Slope eatery. Sitting on the Seventh Avenue corner that previously housed Tempo Presto, the restaurant has been a local fixation from the moment construction began, with neighbors poking their heads in and chatting — or blogging — all about it.

What’s really worth talking about, however, is the food that chef Adrian Leon (Rosa Mexicano) is making. From the start of a meal, when freshly made tortilla chips arrive at the table with a spicy tomatillo salsa, it’s clear that this isn’t just another Tex-Mex margarita joint.

On a recent night, I was swiping those chips through a pile of creamy guacamole. The dip comes with warm tortillas; the salt of the chips gave the avocado a bit of a kick and was a nice foil to the sweet “Ultima del Barrio” margarita I was sipping.

While a good guacamole shouldn’t be overlooked, the real star starter was a plate of “sopes,” fried corn cakes topped with a pile of crabmeat and drizzled with a spicy salsa. A plate of these and a chilly glass of tequila was as spot-on perfect for a summer night as it gets.

When that summer night happens to be a cool one, Barrio boasts an oversized terrace — covered in a can’t-miss orange tent and festooned with Christmas lights — that gives outdoor dining enthusiasts a perch from which to eat and observe.

The interior dining room has a definite theme but doesn’t delve into kitsch. Designed by Rothschild’s wife, Julie, the space features tiled floors, pink paint with a mural on the back wall, and exposed beams on the ceiling. The result is a carefully planned feeling of relaxation, and it does the trick.

After sharing a spirited spinach salad with red onion, tomato, “queso fresco” cheese and crisp “chorizo” in jalapeno-mint vinaigrette, my dinner date and I dug into the main courses.

The “Puebla pork” came doused in a peanut mole sauce, studded with bits of Chihuahua cheese — a soft cow’s cheese — and accompanied by garlicky sauteed spinach and a fluffy corn cake. The dish was Bill Gates rich and could have used something crunchy and bright to cut the thick flavor of the meat and peanut sauce, but each element succeeded on its own. We cleaned the plate, mind you, and only after we smacked our lips did we wish for a bit of the hot pepper slaw that came with the crab appetizer.

Another entree we split was the Yucatan shrimp, a plate of grilled prawns in cilantro-jalapeno marinade, topped with pickled onions and placed on a bed of calamari-studded coconut rice. What sounds like a few too many ingredients was actually a tasty, harmonious dish. The sweet bite of the onions offset the creamy rice, and the plump sea creatures gave each bite a succulent, grilled flavor. We made quick business of the shrimp, and were still picking at the squid rings after declaring how full we were.

Feeling like I had gone just a bit too far beyond the border, we opted to try just one dessert: a sweet “tres leches” cake with a handful of strawberries on top. The dish, a favorite in tiny Mexican bakeries and high-end eateries alike, didn’t disappoint. It was milky and sugary, but not at all heavy, especially with the strawberries adding a kiss of fresh acidity.

In putting together the restaurant, Rothschild, a Park Sloper himself, has clearly applied the lessons he’s learned from his Manhattan mega-restaurants. The servers are quick, knowledgeable and friendly; water glasses never go empty and scraped plates are whisked away before you know it. The dishes, too, are well designed — authentic yet accessible.

Watching customers hug the hostess and servers wave to regulars proved that Barrio is a welcome addition to our own.

Barrio (210 Seventh Ave. at Third Street in Park Slope) accepts American Express, Discover, MasterCard and Visa. Entrees: $11.95-$18.95. The restaurant serves dinner daily and brunch on weekends. Nearest subway: F train to Seventh Avenue. For information, call (718) 965-4000 or visit www.barriofoods.com.

Posted 5:36 pm, July 17, 2008
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