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Ambient Appeal 

A beautifully transformed corner store is home to one of Uptown's two new Colombian/Caribbean restaurants.

Mazorca is not exactly a staple of the New Orleans table, but locals interested in this homespun example of Colombian cooking can assess competing versions without leaving Uptown. This creamy corn casserole is a centerpiece of the menus of two restaurants that each trace their roots from Cartegena on Colombia's Caribbean coast to New Orleans, via Kenner.

One, Baru Bistro & Tapas, is run by Edgar Caro. The other, West Indies Café, is run by his uncle, Hernan Caro. Both men worked together at their original family restaurant, Baru Café, which was open in Kenner from 2006 until late last year. Edgar left the business and opened his own restaurant on Magazine Street in April 2007. When the original Baru closed, Hernan also moved Uptown, opening West Indies on St. Charles Avenue.

For diners, this family-business rift translates into two restaurants serving Colombian/Caribbean cuisine within two miles of each other. Baru is reviewed this week. Next week, look for a review of West Indies. (Then check out our blog, www.blogofneworleans.com, to see how these two rival Colombian restaurants match up.)

Things look great at Baru, from the stylishly tropical décor to a menu ringing with exotic offerings to the ambient bustle of the restaurant and its Magazine Street setting.

At dinnertime, at lunch, even during a downpour that chased patrons back from the outer band of sidewalk tables, Baru has the kind of energy that makes it feel like the place to be. If the food was either consistently on target or more modestly priced, this diminutive Uptown restaurant would live up to its vibe. That can happen by ordering very carefully, but tread with caution.

The mazorca is a must-try 'tapa," or appetizer, as first courses were once known in this city. Brought to the table as a collection of individual parts, diners mix together grilled corn kernels, bits of a mellow, crumbly farmers-style cheese called salao, a garlic-laden pink sauce and potato sticks. Follow that with the hot salad of grilled avocado and portobello mushroom chunks tossed together with lime juice, and you've had two of the menu's best offerings.

It turned out on one visit that a generous amount of tart, smooth avocado aioli was the better part of the corn fritters, which were badly overcooked. A $13 order of crab cakes included two tiny cakes of the more-cake-than-crab variety.

Specials fare pretty well, such as one night's sautéed calamari, which was soft, clean-tasting and served in a broth as slurp-worthy as any that might accompany a bowl of mussels. A fried soft-shell crab dressed liberally with aioli is another special I'd eagerly repeat.

My favorite entrée is the atun Baru, a tuna steak seared to a succulent medium rare and splayed out with a hash of avocado and mango. What should have been an entrée highlight, however, was a disappointing flop: the patacon, a flat cake of pounded green plantains shaped like a surfboard and piled with either slices of steak and chicken or a tangle of roasted vegetables. The bland plantains on both versions were dry, limp and lacked even the flavor of a good dash of salt. The grilled skirt steak served on its own was pleasingly chewy, lusciously marinated and singing with flavor.

The dessert list is very short, with just a choice of sorbet or tres leches cake one night. That tres leches was definitive, however, milky without being mushy, not too sweet, topped with a half-inch layer of frosting as dense and sticky as whipped marshmallow.

Lunch features a similar list of appetizers, a pair of salads and sandwiches. My favorite of the lot is the choripan, which is essentially grilled Swiss cheese and sweet red onions studded with a dice of spicy, exceptionally greasy chorizo sausage.

Baru's beautifully designed, casual and inviting setting is a major part of the restaurant's appeal. The two-story building was long Jennie's Grocery Store, a dilapidated corner store. The transformation into a Caribbean/Colombian restaurant made a startling improvement. Inside, fresh lily blossoms adorn each table, tropical fruit is piled in huge bowls on the service bar, and more flowers hang from the windows. Outside, the high, overhanging second-floor gallery and long, turned columns create the feeling of an open-air room for the sidewalk seating, which gives the impression that the boisterous restaurant has spilled out onto the street.

Baru is BYOB and assesses an $8 corkage fee per wine bottle. Service is friendly and prompt, and for such a small restaurant there seems to be a robust complement of waitstaff.

Despite the casual feel of the place and BYOB policy, meals can be expensive. The jerk chicken starts the entree prices at $19 and from there the short list quickly accelerates to $23, $25, $27 and $30 for the whole fried fish, which was too dry on my visit to recommend. At these prices, you have your choice of most fine dining restaurants in New Orleans.

click to enlarge Edgar Caro prepares Colombian/Caribbean cuisine at Baru Bistro & Tapas. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Edgar Caro prepares Colombian/Caribbean cuisine at Baru Bistro & Tapas.
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