Tasting Rio Grill's New Flavor
April 21, 2011
One of the area's edible institutions closed its doors in the early morning hours Sunday. They weren't closed long.
Starting with last night's grand re-opening party, which coincided with its 27th anniversary, Rio Grill (625-5436) ushered in a new era of upgraded Southwest cuisine and craft cocktailery. The move parallels a rebirth its younger sibling standout restaurant Montrio undertook last summer.
The bar just got the most major makeover, with a beautiful new polished wood surface and a turn toward swankier drinks starring hip spirits, agave syrups and pickled goodies from Chef Cy Yontz—at the opening I tried an incredible El Fuego martini with muddled jalapeño, cilantro and lime with Ketel One and Cointreau—while its signature caricatures on the walls are growing in character and number.
The china, flatware and decor have all been refreshed, the wine list is now distributed on iPads (which link to tasting notes) and there's a gorgeous new Santa Fe Room which has its own bar, enjoys full AV/Internet/stereo hookups and can hold 50-plus, which will wield delicious possibilities for tastings, private parties and other special events.
The most savory change for this omnivore, though, is that Yontz—who learned the chile-rich art of Southwest cuisine with Mark Miller at Santa Fe’s landmark Coyote Cafe and has only honed it further here—is gaining greater control of the menu, a long-overdo development.
I went by last Friday to give the new flavors a Rio yum run for their money, and many of the new tastes were also introduced to friends of Rio last night.
Lamb meatballs with cotija cheese made for immediate happiness Friday and last night—thanks to juicy tenderness and layered flavor that delivered the softest heat and just a touch of sweet.
Next came slow-smoked barbecue pork ribs. These are lean but meaty, in the classic chew-to-earn-it style rather than a boiled-until-fall-off-the-bone.
House-cured pork belly—crispy on the outside, fatty-indulgent on the inside and smoky rich throughout—was even better come Wednesday thanks to a little more heat.
The blistered shishito peppers, a Japanese cousin of the padron, provide addictive spiciness accented by sea salt and the possibility that the next one you pluck might be one of the super hot chiles (there's about one per plate).
The grilled baby octopus (an appetizer, like all the dishes listed so far) enjoys a delicious tomato-basil-herb sauce and a queso-fresco crown. Sourced from India, this lil' creature tasted clean and smoky, but was way too chewy for me, though the other eaters with me swooned over it.
The ceviche trio can be called nothing less than a tasty triumph, with an Ecuadorian tomato-habañero shrimp version; a Peruvian style with scallop, lime and aji amarillo (I've never had—or expected to enjoy—scallops like this); and a melt-in-your-mouth Hondureño approach with ahi tuna, ginger, coconut milk and serrano chile. Make this triple play a priority.
The new skirt steak salad is a sturdy way to get protein without the accompanying carbs. Tender slices of rare marinated meat do well with a precisely dressed bundle of greens and ripe pear tomatoes.
One of the new entrees—which Yontz and team have been perfecting for weeks as featured specials to skip start-up hiccups—is a roasted all-natural chicken breast with red chile gravy.
Sauces are a Yontz strong-point, with smoky, textured complexity, and this one doesn't disappoint with toasted New Mexican chile and housemade smoked chicken stock refried to create a glossy, luxurious, red bath of flavor, almost like a lighter Oaxacan mole.
The Dr. Pepper short ribs represent another new entree option: After extensive braising in the sweet soda, certified Angus beef comes on a corn-and-queso mash with crispy parsnips. I was surprised to discover I preferred the appetizer pork ribs a little more.
Yontz, who is clearly enjoying the new lease on his kitchen, really got grinning with this one. "Buckle your seat belts," he smiled.
The "peanut butter and belly" is designed to turn tongues with its daring, but the bigger shock might be that it actually is pretty damn good. Wedged between two pieces of Texas toast, the peanut butter hits a little strong up front, but gives way to an excellent Yontz-crafted ollaberry jam that plays beautifully with the salty, smoky belly, while cornmeal-crusted fennel fries provide an inspired side.
I'm not sure if I'd order it again, though Yontz's plan to ramp up the jam and turn down the peanut butter bodes well for this signature invention.
I am sure, though, that I love what the Rio remix—as it gives a lively bar even more vitality, re-energizes one of the Peninsula's most dynamic chefs and opens up a top-shelf private party venue—has done for one of the area's noblest outposts.
Which calls for a toast. Rio's new Macallan ice-ball maker uses gravity to shape oversize cubes into perfect spheres.
It's only available with top-shelf bourbons which, appropriately, have aged as nicely as Rio itself.