BARRIO (896 Queen East, at Logan, 416-572-0600) Casual east-side eatery from the Verveine crew offers upscale cocktails and tapas-style global fusion nibbles. Warning: after a meal of these genre-busting but small-portioned dishes you'll want to hit the nearest greasy spoon for a burger 'n' fries. Complete meals for $45 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Open Monday to Saturday 4:30 pm to 2 am, Sunday 5:30 pm to 1 am. Kitchen opens nightly at 6 pm. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Where others falter, Kim Saunders finds fortune. This savvy restaurateur first came to our attention at Mistral, the uptown spot she opened in 97, and later at Verveine, the comfy neighbourhood café that's put Leslieville on Toronto foodies' culinary map. Now, Saunders and company have launched Barrio, a new tapas bar on the booming Queen East strip. As well, she's brought former Verveine chef Roger Mooking - most recently of Epic in the Royal York - back onto the team. Early days often mean a shaky start, but when Barrio scores, the results are as good as its siblings.
Once a low-life saloon, the room has been remarkably transformed into a hip 'n' happening spot. Now it's got corduroy banquettes and throw pillows, pierced tin trapezoidal light fixtures and dark wooden floors. But the bare, granite-topped tables with awkward wrought iron legs - they came with the place, apparently - need a re-think unless the expected clientele consists of contortionists.
As the sound system shuffles through the Neptunes' NERD project, the Literary Device sips a fruity Australian Shiraz (2000 Amberton Barossa, $9.50 glass/$39 bottle) and I quaff a pint of Barrio's hausbrau (Blanche de Chambly, $7.48) and wait for the parade of plates to begin.
Some bread would be nice, but we don't feel like paying four bucks for a basket of Fred's - granted, wonderful - slices, even if they do come with what the menu describes as "rotating chef's dips." We venture it's the dunks that spin.
Our charmingly offbeat server advises that portions are smaller than usual and meant for sharing. We start with Saunders's own gazpacho ($5), a rustic, lemony take on the Andalusian summer classic, thick with roughly chopped cuke, tomato, red onion and peppers both sweet and hot. A toasted sliver of baguette floats on the surface, dolloped with creamy peppered ricotta.
Next up, perfectly tender calamari tendrils get tightly bound in spring roll wrappers, then deep-fried into "chopsticks" ($9). The squid's topknots come splayed and wrapped around each tasty cylinder. On the side, tiny blobs of dilled sour cream and house-made gherkins. The presentation - like most everything here, served on square Asian dinnerware - inspires.
We could easily polish off another order but instead move on to the appetizer-sized dish of braised Roma tomato straight from the stove, squiggled 80s-style with syrupy balsamic and garnished with exactly three tissue-thin garlic chips ($7).
Another trio - Mooking's minced chicken ravioli ($9), with a delicious Asiago-scented cream pooled alongside - would make a satisfying entree if there were 12 of the pasta pillows instead of three. Of course, that main would then cost $36.
More conventionally plated (i.e., meat and two veg), hoisin-heavy shredded glazed pork ($10) comes with wilted watercress and a fantastic salsa of apple, jalapeo and freshly shucked corn kernels. But a lone five-spiced wonton chip, two dainty daubs of red-pepper aioli and a handful of oven-dried corn silk add visual interest only.
If the dish dubbed Chilled Root Vegetable Spaghetti with Riesling-Soaked Raisins ($7) came as a side to ginger-marinated strip loin ($13), it could be called coleslaw; it's that pedestrian. This very light meal concludes with the evening's highlight, Saunders's booze-soaked Boca Negra ($6), a heavenly flourless chocolate cake sprigged with mint, sauced with tart raspberry coulis and accompanied by two scoops of Barrio's own vanilla-bean ice cream.
An hour later we're back on the street and only slightly less hungry than we were when we arrived. And though we're knocked out by Barrio's best, some of the adventurous combinations confuse rather than fuse.
The portions confound as well. For NOW, dinner at Barrio is like going to the movies and only seeing trailers.