Flair Game—Barbakoa

December 2014/January 2015 View more

Barbakoa Interior_800pxStepping into Barbakoa, a colorful take on modern Latin cuisine in Downers Grove, felt like a reunion of sorts with Jerry Kleiner.

Mind you, I’ve never actually met the brash restaurateur behind such ambitious ventures as Carnivale in Chicago and Il Poggiolo in Hinsdale, among many others throughout the years. But when my wife and I first moved to the South Loop more than a decade ago, that now-bustling neighborhood was still something of a barren frontier in terms of commerce, particularly on the dining front. Our choices within walking distance were pretty much limited to a chain sub shop and Kleiner’s pioneering and uncharacteristically low-key rustic Italian gem Gioco. While we didn’t visit Gioco as often as we would have liked during our four years in the South Loop before migrating to Naperville, we were always thankful it was there—particularly on those nights when we were in the mood for something a little more refined than a cold cut combo.

Barbakoa-082_800pxNow Kleiner has made his way out to us again. Barbakoa represents another of his forays into the Western suburbs as well as a return to more of the trademark theatricality that most have come to expect from his oeuvre.

A Feast For The Eyes

Sure enough, long before it grabs you by the taste buds with its pan-Latin tapas-style cuisine, Barbakoa commands your attention with the flamboyant design flourishes of its centerpiece bar area – all bold colors and soaring lines and a focal lighting fixture that probably has its own agent. The main dining area is a dimly lit, but wide-open space, that likely booms with the lovely people on busy weekends, but was generally serene on our Monday visit. We were seated in something of a four-season room to the opposite side of the bar, featuring large windows and an abundance of wood.

Barbakoa-026_800pxOur server Kris was extremely forthcoming and detail-oriented in walking us first-timers through both the drink slate and dining menu, focusing not so much on individual dishes as much as the various options for strategizing our meal. After much debate, we settled on one of the four tasting regiments, which seemed a good way to take a nice cross-section of the wide-ranging fare.

Noah’s Diner

True to its name, Tasting Dos featured most things in pairs. We kicked things off with two different salsas, a medium-heat Serrano concoction and a sweet-and-spicy pineapple version. Pineapple would prove to be something of a recurring theme, permeating one of our two guacamole choices as well—the pina—which delivered a pleasingly subtle afterkick of heat thanks to its not-overplayed habanero. Ceviches were next, and here we both opted to stick with straightforward shrimp versions that were reliably tangy and rich in flavor.

Barbakoa-052_800pxTasting Dos offers as its main course a quartet of corn-tortilla tacos for each diner, which we split evenly from among 10 varieties between basic shredded chicken, cod, shrimp and pastor (there’s that pineapple again). Of this spread, the standouts were the cod—a slaw-covered mess of a thing to eat, but with a delicious crunchy-outside/flaky-inside piece of batter-fried fish underneath—and the pastor, the height of sweet-savory collaboration thanks to the aforementioned pineapple flavor and garnishing wedge. Sides included simple white rice with fresco cheese and some killer Brussels sprouts with Manchego in a pequillo sauce.

The only regret of the tasting menu is that the dessert sampler, a nice spread that includes a ridiculous guava cheesecake square among its several bite-size offerings, makes one forgo Barbakoa’s fill-your-own donuts dessert option. That one feels like classic Kleiner, and will likely inspire a return trip to Downers Grove for another reunion sometime very soon.

1341 Butterfield Road
Downers Grove

Photos by Greg Shapps