There Goes The Neighborhood

The Once-Brilliant Barrio Could Stand Some Renewal.

WHEN BARRIO FIRST opened, the reviews glowed as downtown welcomed a new epicurean star. Barrio has always boasted a crack team of players, but over time various partners have departed, leaving the current configuration of Ted Parks (formerly of Presidio), Joe Casterano (formerly of Kingfisher) and chef Jeff Glomski (from Painted Desert). So we decided to check back in at the Barrio and see how our old friend was holding up.

Promptly greeted by our waiter, I was reminded once again about what Barrio does best: Create the sense that you are deeply welcomed into the fold. A server or barkeep will always gently remind you to watch your step as you enter, or graciously proffer an umbrella in a downpour as you leave. The relaxed and convivial atmosphere of the Barrio is like entering the home of a welcoming old friend.

On this particular evening, our thoughtful waiter encouraged us to drift through the menu, sampling as we went. Under his counsel, we started the meal under the "Little Plates" category with the steamed green lip mussels and black tiger shrimp in an ancho chile-citrus-garlic broth ($9.25). Cooked until just plump, both the mussels and the shrimp flourished in the sharp and spicy broth. With just the right amount of garlic, orange juice and bright bits of cilantro, this was an expansive way to stimulate the palate.

We moved on to an old favorite among Barrio fans, the Ensalada de Pescado: mixed greens, sunflower sprouts and pineapple relish tossed with a papaya-cilantro vinaigrette and topped with pan-blackened fish of the day ($9.25). On this occasion, Baso, a fresh-water fish farmed in the rivers of Vietnam, was featured. Four generous filets dusted with cayenne and other aromatics were blackened and served on a bed of mixed greens. While this is an old standby on the menu, on this night we missed the pineapple relish and found the papaya-cilantro vinaigrette to be barely perceptible. A little disconcerted, our party still moved confidently on to sample the evening's entrées.

Under "Large Plates" there are a number of pasta offerings, and we opted for the grilled chicken, poblano chiles, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes and roasted garlic served on linguine ($14.25). A truly splendid platter of pasta arrived. But although there were many bold flavors--whole cloves of roasted garlic and the burst of sun-dried tomato--the dish as a whole was dry. While the ingredients wanted to pull together, the dish stubbornly refused. This might have something to do with some of the dish's textures. While the inclusion of poblano added a smoky flavor, a sautéed poblano is not a beautiful thing. In this case, the skins were tough, and the chile didn't yield the same intense flavor or tender sweetness a roasted and peeled poblano could impart.

Feeling that maybe we should stray from the menu, we ordered the specials of the evening. They certainly sounded impressive. Among them we chose the chipotle-dusted and honey-glazed pork chops served in a Granny Smith apple and cherry compote ($21) and the New York Strip served in a Dijon mustard/cognac sauce ($26).

The two pork chops were certainly generous and fleshy. The compote, while adding a vivid and bright flavor, was more a strained purée than a compote, but nevertheless it complemented the chops nicely. The rest of the plate, however, was sorry indeed. The "julienne of summer vegetables" was a sad and soggy spoonful of zucchini, carrot and summer squash that tasted like it had been sitting under a heat lamp for the better part of the evening. On the other side of the plate sat the lonely half of a "twice baked potato," which was simply a glorified piped baked potato.

When the steak arrived, we found the cut of meat to be tender and cooked, as ordered, within a whisper of medium rare. The Dijon mustard/cognac sauce was light and savory, but we were stricken to see the same tired spoonful of julienned vegetables and (one assumes) the other half of the piped baked potato make a repeat appearance. Considering this is the height of summer, with so many fresh vegetable options, we were surprised at such a slothful offering from the kitchen. None of the three entrées rose above a rather uninspired level, yet commanded prices up to $26 a plate; we left Barrio feeling cheated by an old friend.

Saddened by our experience, and at the urging of various die-hard Barrio fans, we returned to see if maybe we'd just hit an off night. This time we stopped in for lunch and found the dining room packed with a boisterous crowd. Despite how busy the restaurant was, we still received friendly, attentive and swift service.

This time we sampled the grilled black tiger shrimp rubbed with a tamarind recado, served with a mandarin orange/yellow tomato pico de gallo ($8.25). The pico de gallo offered up a sharp and pleasant contrast to the shrimp. Perhaps the recado had rubbed off on the grill, but there wasn't much of a discernible flavor of tamarind. For the asking price, four shrimp seemed a bit paltry.

An old favorite, the Anaheim chile stuffed with roasted garlic, black beans and goat cheese on a red bell pepper cream ($7) seemed like a safe bet. Sadly, this time the usually glossy pink crème was faintly colored and tasted mostly of garlic and heavy cream. Although the chile was fresh, the dish seemed ponderous and unbalanced as the goat cheese and the heavy cream drowned out the more delicate flavors of the dish. We were left wondering, yet again, who was in the kitchen executing familiar recipes that no longer looked or tasted familiar.

The mixed baby greens salad tossed with fresh berries, pineapple, mandarin orange, roasted pistachios and Gorgonzola in a Madagascar vanilla bean/coconut vinaigrette ($8.50) sounded inviting. Lovingly tossed in the kitchen, every layer was stratified with bite-sized greens, fresh berries and orange sections, studded with roasted pistachios and plenty of Gorgonzola. This was an expensive plate full of ingredients that completely fell apart when mixed with the coconut-vanilla vinaigrette. The combination of fats in the Gorgonzola and coconut are not a mix and, at least on this palate, dissolve into a soapy-tasting oil. While some of these ingredients do go together (fruit and Gorgonzola are classic), this plate of lovely top-shelf ingredients couldn't rise above being a costly and disappointing error.

Desserts were appropriately light and refreshing and featured seasonal fruits. We sampled the crème anglaise with fresh berries. A lovely flute of fresh blueberries, blackberries and strawberries served in a pool of cocoa and caramel swirl showcased the splendor of summer. The chocolate custard served with homemade caramel sauce and fresh strawberries and blackberries was a rich and lustrous offering, too.

Overall, I imagine the Barrio's fans will remain fans. After all, the service is delightful and the dining room lovely. Still, it is disappointing to see one of our own locally grown independents become so lackadaisical in the kitchen.

In a town where corporate restaurants continuously spawn, it is hard not to cheer the independents on wildly and wish them the very best. Conversely, if they are to survive their wealthy plasticine brethren, the small independents have to actively compete to retain a local following. Nothing short of a sharp competitive edge will do. The food should be consistent and it should be a quality product. No one can get away with soggy vegetables or piped "twice baked" potatoes. These are items that get passed over at your unpopular cousin's cheaply catered wedding. And for good reason. They certainly shouldn't be items stapled onto featured specials, especially not at $26 a pop.

Perhaps it's just summertime blues, or maybe a temporary inconsistency in the kitchen. One hopes. We don't give up our hearts so easily to just anyone, and it is sad to see a bright star go dim. With the fall season almost upon us, one hopes that Barrio snaps out of its summer slump and polishes up that old star.

Barrio. 135 South Sixth Ave. 629-0191. Serving lunch Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; dinner Tuesday-Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m. (until midnight on Friday and Saturday). Full bar. V, MC, AMEX, DC, checks. Menu items: $4.75- $21.00. Reservations: recommended.