Trendy tapas restaurants are sure bets for hot dates or wine-soaked nights on the town. But what we wanted to know is whether the tapas concept at Barrio, the much-buzzed-about new Downtown restaurant, translates to a leisurely lunch setting. And it does - quite nicely.
Barrio isn't as hopping on a weekday afternoon as it is on Friday night, for sure, but the relaxed pace makes it easier to have a conversation, pore over the menu and ask the staff which Spanish wines would complement each of your small plates.
To create the right ambience, the owners of Due Amici took an old two-story Wendy's on High Street and gave it a complete makeover. Gone are the laminated plastic booths, and in their places are sleek dark-wood tables and chairs and one massive, jaw-dropping table made from a hunk of polished raw wood.
The fast-food counter was swapped for a long bar offering a peek into the bustling kitchen. Planks of reclaimed wood hang in a jagged pattern from the ceiling, drawing eyes immediately upward. The overall effect is a stylish and chic space where you'll want to linger.
What to drink
The wine list is extensive, with several picks from Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries. Rather than ordering a bottle for the table, try a few half-glasses so you can pick a match for each of your dishes. Or, for a lighter summer drink, order the sangria. The fruity and refreshing wine punch is served in a tall juice glass with slices of orange and lemon.
What to eat
The restaurant offers an intriguing assortment of lunch plates, like paella and an ancho-roasted pork wrap. But all the buzz has been around Barrio's tapas, and with good reason. Each small plate is perfectly executed, with an ideal balance of flavors - European and Latin American, light and heavy, salty and sweet.
Take the Quesos Espanoles ($13), a cheese plate filled with hefty servings of Spanish favorites like gorgonzola and manchego. Along with the cheeses and a few slices of toasted bread, you get salty marcona almonds, a tiny chickpea salad and quince paste, a citrusy-sweet jam popular in Spain. For a perfectly balanced bite of salty and sweet, smear some quince paste on a piece of toast and top it with manchego.
Another favorite was the Mejillones y Salchicha ($8). The deliciously unfussy mussels are topped with spicy, rich chorizo sausage and a golden saffron aioli, while chunks of potato swim in the sea-salty broth, soaking up all those flavors.
Even the Papas Fritas ($6), a bowl of garlic-and-herb-flecked fries you'll dream about later, is well designed, with a sherry vinegar aioli dipping sauce that cuts the richness of the fried potatoes.
Tres Leches cake ($6) is a Mexican standard, found everywhere from the finest restaurants to the neighborhood taquerias, and Barrio's is excellent. A sliver of sponge cake soaked in milk and cream is served over a fancy mango coulis and topped with whipped cream. This super-moist dessert is decadent, so the small slice is just enough to hit the spot.
Also tasty were the Panqueques ($7), which are thin crepes rolled around a burst of dulce de leche and topped with fresh strawberries.
185 N. High St., Downtown