Two distinct but entwined threads had always guided RioMar. One is the food of the Spanish-speaking world, from the ham-obsessions of central Spain to the hot peppers and tropical fish of the nation's former colonies. The other was the life journey of chef Adolfo Garcia, a New Orleans native from a Panamanian family who trained in Spain and had a story for every dish on his menu, whether it sprang from a tapas bar in Seville or a pupuseria in a Kenner strip mall.
Garcia left RioMar earlier this year, selling his stake to longtime business partner Nick Bazan in order to focus on his many newer restaurant ventures. Since then his successor and former protege, Miles Prescott, has been at the helm, keeping the restaurant's pan-Hispanic culinary identity intact while adding his own accents.
The changes are hardly sweeping. Diners still can (and should) get the signature four-ceviche sampler to start, the short-grain rice cooked with squid and its black ink, the falling-apart roasted pork with plantains, rice and beans and the Gulf fish escabeche, covered with an oily, pickled relish that presses flavor buttons like an olive salad.
One of those ceviches is now made with coconut milk, which gives a tart but mellower, creamier flavor in a way that's better tuned to cooler weather. Red snapper, a recent special, was grilled skin-on and topped with a salad of fresh greens, grape tomatoes and sweet crab knuckles and a Peruvian sauce that was somewhere between aioli and chimichurri. At dessert, a sweet golden Galician crepe was wrapped around basil and honey sabayon with apples cooked in sherry and cinnamon. Bacalao, the Spanish salt cod, now arrives two ways on the same plate — whipped into a casserole and sliced over greens with torn hunks of crusty bread in between. If salted cod seems archaic in our age of flash-freezing and overnight deliveries, this properly done version shows how, as with ham and pickles, ancient methods can endure on their own delicious merits.
'Tis the season of holiday lunches and office outings, for which RioMar is custom cut with its banquet-sized spaces and daytime tapas menu. In the afternoon, when much of the rest of its vintage industrial block is closed behind heavy shutters, the party is boisterous inside RioMar. Groups pass around terra-cotta bowls of grilled octopus and garlic shrimp or plates of jamon, blood sausage and white anchovies, along with generous pours of Priorat and fizzy txakolina.
The wine list is dedicated largely to eclectic and food-friendly Spanish bottles, and relative bargains abound. There are specialty cocktails, but RioMar is a place to instead sample sherry as your aperitif.
I do miss some of Garcia's dishes — especially the serrano-wrapped tuna — and I miss the chef's ebullient presence in what was his flagship. But with such a diverse range of Spanish and Latin source material up for reinterpretation, I'm also looking forward to what happens here next.