by Ian McNulty
Uptown is home to a pair of restaurants that trace their roots from Cartegena on Colombia's Caribbean coast to New Orleans, via Kenner.
Baru Bistro & Tapas is run by Edgar Caro while the other, 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, using the Baru name and a menu that was initially very similar to the Kenner restaurant. The original Baru is now closed and Hernan also moved Uptown, opening West Indies on St. Charles Avenue.
For diners, this family business rift translates as two restaurants serving Colombian Caribbean cuisine within two miles of each other. Baru was reviewed in Gambit's Sept. 2 issue and West Indies is reviewed in this week's issue. What follows is a head-to-head breakdown of how these two rival Colombian restaurants compare.
In this paramount category, the two restaurants begin with menus that, while different, have more in common with each other than with any other menu in town.
Where else but at these two restaurants will you find mazorca, the memorable and traditional Colombian dish of roasted corn, fried potato sticks, salao cheese and pink mayo sauce? Similarly, the guacabello appetizer is served at both restaurants and nowhere else in New Orleans.
From there, each restaurant has a grilled skirt steak, grilled tuna with mango and avocado, ceviche and other commonalities that speak more to their kitchens' shared ethnic heritage than the same family cookbook. A key bit of common ground is the extensive use of plantains, that cornerstone of the Latin Caribbean food pyramid.
At West Indies, most entrees are served with one of two different takes on the versatile plantain: either tostones, starchy, crunchy disks made of pounded, fried unripe plantains; or maduros, sweet, soft, fried ripe plantains. Both are satisfying and well done, especially the tostones after a dip in any of the various sauces or chimichurris accompanying the entrees.
At Baru, the highlight plantain dish turned out to be a disappointing flop. The patacones like tostones but much larger and molded into a surfboard shape were bland when piled with grilled meat or with roasted vegetables as a meatless option. We ended up eating the toppings off the dry, stale-tasting platform in both cases.
Baru has a superior ceviche, which is mild flavored with not a glimpse of fishiness getting through the very strong citrus soak. It is a large portion, served in a parfait glass, and I attacked it like a kid after a sundae. Specials are also reliably good, such as sautéed calamari and fried soft shell crabs with aioli.
West Indies has many more options on its menu, from appetizers to seafood entrees to meat dishes. While many of the fish preparations do taste the same, the kitchen's bouillabaisse-like cazuela with shrimp, mussels and clams in the shell is a singular treat. The fried pork, covered in a creamy red pepper sauce and scored with deep, crispy grooves, is decadence on a plate but stops short of overwhelming. Appetizers like fried yucca with chorizo sausage and fried salao cheese (pictured above) or fluffy carminolas of yucca stuffed with beef are also go-to items.
West Indies has a unique list of specialty cocktails made with Old New Orleans Rum. The "two mile island" is a potent mix of the local rum, limejuice and port, for instance, while 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. The restaurant also serves beer, more familiar cocktails and a small but respectable selection of wines.
Baru is BYOB and charges a corkage fee of $8 per bottle. There is room here for a good deal of negotiation, however, and I've seen resourceful patrons haul in everything from five-liter boxes of wine to 12-packs of Corona. The restaurant prepares some refreshing, non-alcoholic fruit juice drinks and serves them in attractive glassware.
West Indies does a good job of transcending its curious location within the St. Charles Avenue Athletic Center. The space it occupies on the ground floor was once the gym's utilitarian cafeteria, but now has mellow colors, an attractive bar and contemporary metalwork décor and furnishings made by the proprietor himself. Further, West Indies has recently begun hosting Latin bands performing outside on its patio on Saturday evenings. Otherwise, however, the restaurant is difficult to spot despite its location on a prominent and heavily-traveled avenue. The space inside is small but rarely seems hopping. It's comfortable, but can seem too quiet unless you bring your own crowd along to liven things up.
Meanwhile, Baru benefits from something verging on magnetism. The two-story Magazine Street building was long Jennie's Grocery Store, a disintegrating corner store. The transformation into a Caribbean Colombian restaurant made a startling improvement. At once, the formerly dour corner had a fresh splash of color reviving the neglected Creole architecture.
Large windows invite exciting views to crowded tables inside the dining room and, from those seats, frame an interesting street scene outside. 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. Not even the occasional punk kid zipping between the sidewalk tables on a BMX bike can detract from the cool vibe.
Baru's beautifully designed, casual and inviting setting is a major part of this restaurant's appeal. On the right kind of night (with a cool breeze, lots of other people around creating the buzz of popularity, a good flow of BYOB libations) Baru can be very romantic.
Given their different dining environments, the level of service at each restaurant is about equal: competent, friendly and reasonably swift.
Baru is far more bustling, and the numerous servers seem adept at handling the constant flow of people in the tiny dining room and managing the potential pitfalls of having many of the restaurant's tables situated outdoors on the sidewalk.
At West Indies, there is rarely more than one waitress serving tables, but she is very helpful in explaining the unfamiliar points of the menu.
West Indies sits comfortably at the mid-level price range, a mysteriously rare median between cheap neighborhood joint and full-fledged fine dining. Only one dinner entrée, the rib eye, breaks the $20 threshold, and most are priced closer to $15. At lunch, everything is below $15 and entrees come with a delicious bean soup.
Meanwhile, pricing is an Achilles heel for Baru. Were the prices lower, the expectations for the food would not be so high and the frequent shortfall from those expectations not quite so glaring. Despite the BYOB policy, a meal here can easily be as expensive as some of the city's top-tier restaurants. For instance, the range of entrée prices at Baru is similar to that found a block down Magazine Street at Lilette, a much finer restaurant.
West Indies offers more menu options, better consistent quality and higher value than Baru, while Baru has the ambiance and vibe all over West Indies. Of the two restaurants, Baru is the place to see and be seen while West Indies is the place to really dive in and explore Colombian Caribbean cooking.
-- Ian McNulty