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December 8, 2008 at 1:50 PM

First-bite report from Seattle’s Barrio

As restaurant critics, Providence Cicero and I have long made it a point to stay away from newbies on their debut-nights. But as restaurant-lovers, we’d both readily admit: sometimes curiousity gets the better of us. (See: opening night at Lola, when a drive-by and a fortuitous parking space turned into a gal-pal outing over ouzo and octopus we’re still talking about years later.) Anyway, Friday night, after reviewing a restaurant elsewhere, Prov stopped in at Barrio for a bite and a look-see. She shared her first impressions with me in an e-mail and given her colorful commentary, I can’t help but share them with you:

Hola, Amiga,

While you were in the Windy City this weekend I went South of the Border, sorta, and checked out Barrio on its opening night. You can tell this new Pike-Pine Mexican restaurant is a Purple Cafe sibling from the minute you push open the massive wooden front doors. It’s one of the Purple People’s signature elements, along with a wall of candles and furniture that it takes a heavyweight wrestler to move.

The facade is all sleek, smoky glass. The interior is visually stunning in an ancient-meets-modern way. The wall of candles is really a wall of cubicles with candle holders in each square, that mimic fat pillars. There are two dining rooms and an enormous serpentine bar that looks like a giant anaconda with a mosaic-tile top.

Behind the bar are some romantic booths for two, and beyond that there’s a counter positioned to give a glimpse of the kitchen through grand archways. Framed in one of them was a diminutive Mexican woman with a white scarf wrapped nun-like around her graying hair, pressing corn tortillas by hand and tossing them onto a nearby griddle with a flick of her wrist. They are the basis for terrific little tacos. We tried one with pork tenderloin, red onion and roasted pineapple but there are about 10 variations ranging from duck confit to seafood to steak — plus vegetarian combos too.

Duck confit also comes in a tamale. The soft meat was embedded in moist, almost cake-like masa. Impressive, but it was the ceviches and crudos that really knocked me off my cushy bar stool. Petals of sliced sea scallops came with ribbons of mango, sprigs of cilantro and a hint of hot chile pepper. Ahi tuna was paired with avocado, both soft and slippery yet their subtle differences in texture was as intriguing as the piercing flavors of orange, tamarind and sesame that underscored each bite.

The place was slammed and there were some service glitches I’d chalk up to opening night jitters. The bartenders were hustling so hard one knocked over an entire bar rack filled with glassware. The crash was so loud it silenced the crowd — for a millisecond. Then there was a smattering of applause, but I’d give Barrio a big hand. Can’t wait to go back and try the octopus ceviche with olives, capers and chorizo and crispy masa cakes with smoky ancho salsa and shaved queso anejo.

Hasta la vista!

So, anybody else been? What do you think?

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