Baru Bistro & Tapas is run by Edgar Caro, and West Indies 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 moved Uptown as well, 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 was reviewed last week, and West Indies is reviewed below. Visit Gambit Weekly's blog, www.blogofneworleans.com, for a link to Baru's review and for a breakdown of how these two rival Colombian restaurants compare.
Everyone I've brought to West Indies initially balked at the location, which is not surprising. It does feel strange walking through the doors of a gym when anticipating a good meal, especially one that might include fried cheese and fried sausage dressed with sour cream, large rib-eye steaks drenched in oily garlic sauce and cocktails that mix hard liquor with red wine.
Besides the prospect of colliding with a hard-charging gym rat rushing to her workout, once seated there is really little in the dining experience here to indicate that West Indies is tucked into the corner of the St. Charles Avenue Athletic Center. The contemporary, colorful dining room is stylish, and the menu rivets the attention to the unusual and engaging tropical cuisine.
This is Caribbean cooking, but not in the manner of Jamaican jerk or island curries. The Colombian recipes are heavy on yucca, cilantro, plantains, chewy, flavorful steak and heavily seasoned fish. Some of it will be familiar to fans of Baru Café. The menu here is larger and more ambitious, but most entrees remain under $20 at dinner and under $15 at lunch.
Some of the mainstays from the old Baru show up, like the mazorca and the guacabello appetizers. To the uninitiated, mazorca might seem like a late-night stoner concoction with its jumble of roasted corn, shoestring potatoes, plantain chips, orange mayo topping and shredded cheese. But this visual mess is crunchy, creamy, rich and fresh-tasting all at once. The guacabello is a generous platter of mushrooms and avocado with little else but lime, salt and a light char that suffuses it all with the smokiness of a beachside grill.
Fried oysters are plump and lightly cooked with a coating of yucca flour, which gives them a flavor toastier than the more familiar cornmeal crust. Carminolas show a very different use for versatile yucca: mashed and fried into crisp, football-shaped dumplings as fluffy inside as biscuit dough and stuffed with ground beef or crab salad.
Fried yucca chunks on their own are dry but pair very well with sticks of fried salao, a cheese that has some of the bite of Parmesan and also the sour squeakiness of feta. You can get a platter of this all mixed together with spicy knobs of fried chorizo, chunky tomato salsa and streaks of sour cream, which amounts to a delicious mishmash of alternating textures.
There are a number of fish entrées, but a sameness runs through the options. Most are heavily seasoned with achiote, which looks and tastes like mild paprika, and they vary mainly with the type of creamy sauce ladled over them. The best option, however, is rare, grilled tuna steak glistening with sesame oil and soy sauce.
My favorite seafood dish is the cazuela, which is like a bouillabaisse but much lighter. The broth is a blend of seafood stock, herbs and an immense amount of garlic loaded with shrimp, mussels and the locally rare treat of clams in the shell, steamed open and chewy and briny.
West Indies gives meat equal billing. The skirt steak is pounded thin and sliced into narrow strips so its pleasantly chewy flesh is easier to cut. It's accompanied by pico de gallo, though I would have preferred the green, intense chimichurri that helped cut through the fat of the rib-eye. Unapologetically decadent sums up the fried pork chop, which is scored to produce deep, crispy gullies to capture a red pepper cream sauce.
West Indies has a highly original list of specialty drinks inspired by Caro's admiration for the Old New Orleans Rum brand. The "two mile island" is a potent mix of the local rum, lime juice and port. The "coco mocha" mixes rum, red wine and passion fruit juice. These curious combinations are rather dry, quite drinkable and pack a significant alcoholic punch.
After this kind of meal, a trip to the restroom the restaurant shares with the gym is like a peek behind the wizard's curtain: The weight room is clearly visible, even as another pork chop meets the fryer in the kitchen just a few feet away. On Saturday nights, the setting is further transformed by a pan-Latin band performing outside on the restaurant/gym patio.