Baru Bistro & Tapas
3700 Magazine St
New Orleans, LA 70115
Napoleon's Rating - **/*****
Baru offers Caribbean cooking, but not in the manner of Jamaican jerk or island curries. This tiny, colorful Uptown spot specializes in recipes from the Caribbean coast of Colombia, though many of them have been reengineered to fit the current tapas-style small plates trend. It's a stylish place that serves unfamiliar combinations of rare seafood, chewy and flavorful steaks, plantains, yucca and salsas.
This tiny restaurant is attractively designed in a way that suggests a beachfront cafe without parodying it. The colors are tropical and abetted by fresh flowers and piles of fruit on the service bar. The dining room itself is very small and a bit cramped but Baru nearly doubles its number of tables by making good use of sidewalk seating. This area is covered by a gallery and the turned columns, the outside tropical décor and the windows looking into the dining room all make it feel like a natural extension of the restaurant. Of course, people sitting out here still must share the sidewalk with pedestrians, and sometimes kids - or overgrown kids -- will come zipping past on bicycles at startling pace. Also, the small two-seat tables at the edge of the sidewalk may look romantic but prove harrowingly close to the Magazine Street traffic rushing by.
Even in hot weather, the best seats here are outside under the gallery, which is scenic but carries the downside of being a bit cut off from the service staff. The kitchen generally turns out food very quickly. Lunch is fairly sedate and unhurried, while at dinner the small place fills up quick.
Baru's menu pitches some unfamiliar orders your way right from the start on its list of tapas, or appetizers. The mazorca, for instance, is a jumble of roasted corn, shoestring potatoes and an orange mayo topping and shredded cheese, all arriving in something like a tiny metal ramekin. Spoon it onto your plate and it's a visual mess that proves crunchy, creamy, rich and fresh-tasting all at once. Then there's the guacabello, a combination of roasted portabello mushrooms and chopped avocado with lime and green onions. It's like a cool, chunky casserole served balancing atop three small strips of fried plantain. The most basic starter is pimenton asado, a marinated tangle of roasted red peppers to drape over toasted bread. There's always a ceviche and tuna tartare for fresh blasts of raw or nearly-raw fish.
Picking between fish and meat on the entrée list, I recommend the meat. Baru grills its gulf fish wrapped in a banana leaf and while this does help it retain moisture the fish doesn't get much help from seasoning or sauce and ends up rather plain. The carne asada, however, is abetted by an oily red pepper sauce studded with bits of sausage that further melds with the steak drippings and a side component of garlic and cilantro potatoes. Just be aware that this is not a tender piece of meat. The kitchen would be doing you a favor if it simply sliced the steak thin before service, but as it stands now you'll need to saw at it a bit yourself. Baru's substantial salads eat like light entrees, an especially attractive option in hot weather. Grilled shrimp share a bed of mixed greens with diced mango, more avocado and a ginger vinaigrette. Specials are consistently good, such as one night's fried soft shell crabs dressed with garlicky aioli.
The short dessert list includes the usual suspects - flan, tres leches, mango cheesecake. They're not special but add a light tropical touch to end the meal.
Baru is BYOB, and there isn't anywhere in the immediate vicinity to pick up a bottle so be sure to plan ahead for libations. The nonalcoholic house drink list is unique and quite refreshing, with a range of tropical teas and flavored sodas often mixing fruits and herbs.
Baru can be deceptively pricey for such a casual place. The tapas don't look so expensive on the menu (most priced between $5 and $10) but the servings are very small and anyone attempting to make a meal from them will have to order a bunch. Entrees hover just-below to just-above $20 and generally seem worth the cost. BYOB can help keep the bill low for drinkers, but remember Baru does assess an $8 corkage fee per bottle.
Baru's menu has its ups and downs, but there's nothing quite like this in town now so it makes a unique and refreshingly different option. The lively vibe and pleasing décor certainly make it an interesting enough spot to spend some time over a few small plates and whatever wine you bring.