Failure to Fuse

Rio Café has some successful dishes--but the ingredients and theme are all mixed up

If a picture is worth a thousand words--the average word count for a Weekly review--then perhaps you can just skip this and look at the painting in the main dining room at Rio Café.

Hanging in a prominent place--in this establishment that calls its food "Latin fusion"--is a painting of horses standing in a snowstorm near a thick bank of north-woods trees.


We did have some good plates at Rio. And the service is upbeat and sincere. But in a town flooded with great dining choices, a restaurant needs a clear vision--and Rio seems to be lacking just that.

When we walked in on a Tuesday night, the only other people in the place were a couple at the renovated bar, and the staff. We were greeted by a smiling server and given our choice of the tables draped with white cloths. By the time we got our menus, as well as the poblano salsa with jicama sticks, the bar had emptied, and an expected big party had yet to arrive.

The wine menu options didn't intrigue. Considering the Latin theme, I was expecting wines from Argentina, Chile, Spain or Portugal--but there was only one Spanish wine and one Argentine wine listed. Instead, we each ordered a Mexican beer, happy hour priced at $2.50 (regularly $1 more).

For starters, we picked the pinchos de carne ($8) and camarones al ajillo ($9). For entrées, John ordered the short ribs ($20), and I picked the seared halibut ($22). Both main courses came with horseradish mashed potatoes and grilled vegetables.

Our server was totally on top of things: He was friendly and efficient, and he brought our food to the table in a timely manner. (Seeing that we were the only people in the place, that should come as no surprise.)

The pinchos consisted of three strips of well-seasoned, skewered beef atop a bed of sweet, caramelized onions with a bit of horseradish on the side. The dish was delicious, and I guess the addition of horseradish is where the fusion came into the dish.

The shrimp was cooked perfectly and then topped with plenty of garlic slivers and bits of red pepper that had been sautéed in olive oil. Again, the plate was totally enjoyable, but the bland flour tortilla--placed there to make the dish Latin?--brought the flavor down several notches.

John's main dish was a hit. The ribs--with meat tender to the point of falling off the bone--were full of rich flavors that came from long, slow roasting and the savory demi-glaze. It was served with some crispy wonton strips and, again, some horseradish.

It was my fish dish that best illustrated how unclear the focus is at Rio. The fish had been cooked perfectly; it was moist and juicy. And the chipotle raspberry glaze was also tasty--but the flavors were glaringly mismatched, as were the horseradish mashed potatoes. The grilled vegetables--zucchini, onions, mushrooms and peppers--were a nice touch, but by that time, it didn't matter

The kitchen deserves props when it comes to dessert. A tray was brought to the table with six desserts, all of which looked fantastic. I ordered the chocolate chile truffle with raspberry sauce ($6.50), and John ordered the chocolate cake ($6.50).

John's dessert included three different layers of cake with a rich, thick icing and plenty of chocolate chips. It was heavenly. My truffle was more like a mousse. The first bite was all chocolate, and I started wondering where the chile was, when all of a sudden, I felt a smooth, warm heat in the back of my throat. Wow! With the addition of the faint hint of raspberry, this was the perfect dessert.

My second visit came on a Saturday for lunch with my good friend Edie. Again, save for a party in the back room, we were the only folks in the place. Needless to say, we got a lot of attention.

Edie also noted the lack of Latin wines and ended up ordering a pinot grigio ($6), the Zaragoza dates with bacon ($6) and the spinach salad ($7). I ordered a sauvignon blanc ($6), the brie quesadillas ($6) and the Rio relleno ($11).

Neither appetizer impressed. The dates were good, but not great, as anything with bacon should be. Oddly, they were served with warm applesauce. The quesadillas included thin slices of pears, in addition to the mild brie, and it all came with a small green salad with a tangy mango dressing. The dishes were lacking the excitement one expects from Latin food.

Edie liked her spinach salad, which was topped with caramelized walnuts, candied mango, blue cheese and a peach vinaigrette--but she didn't rave about it.

The relleno was a disappointment. In spite of the stunning presentation--an immense chile in a crispy coating was topped with more mango and a tomatillo salsa--the flavors were too mild and all mixed up. Inside were mushrooms, zucchini and corn. The mango just didn't fit, and if it hadn't been for the tangy salsa, this dish would've completely faded out. The sides--refried black beans and rice--were bland, with the beans also being dry.

We split a crème brulee ($6). It was explained that this version was specially made, with the addition of cinnamon to the burnt sugar topping. We both agreed that the cinnamon was excessive, and the custard not eggy enough.

"Fusion" is a buzz word in the food biz. But just because the word is trendy, that doesn't mean a restaurant can get away with serving up incongruous ingredients and calling a slightly overpriced menu "fusion."

Forget the fusion, Rio, and concentrate on the Latin.