Daily Herald

Latin eatery gets swank treatment in Bucktown

Posted Thursday, November 02, 2006

Riding the trend of swanky Latin-American restaurants, Bucktown's new Rio's D'Sudamerica offers an impressive, airy dining room, two stories tall, with floor-to-ceiling murals of South American scenes. An aerial view of modern Rio de Janeiro flanks a fanciful ancient Lima, overlooked by a picture of Macchu Picchu. Palm trees tower over the elegant, white-draped dining tables and padded, upholstered chairs under an industrial-style ceiling.

Dino Perez, the restaurant's owner, has certainly come a long way from his family's venerable, homey Peruvian restaurant, Rinconcito Sudamericano, even though it's just a block down the street. No rustic ethnic eatery, Rio's is definitely a date-night sort of place.

Up front two loungy areas with comfy-looking modern sofas flank the doorway. To one side, a compact bar stands prepared to stir up caipirinhas and pisco sours once the restaurant gets a liquor license. For now, you can bring your own cachaša, pisco or whatever your favorite tipple might be.

Rio's menu, too, runs decidedly upscale. Representing the flavors of Peru, Brazil and Argentina, it ranges from traditional Latin American dishes to updated takes on the cuisines of South America.

Warm, crusty rolls begin the meal, matched with a creamy and incendiary salsa.

The sensational papa a la huancaina, a traditional Peruvian appetizer, cloaks boiled potatoes with a thick, lick-the-plate-worthy cheese sauce mildly heated with peppers and spices.

Less successful, Argentinean-style empanadas al horno, a pair of half-moon-shaped meat pies served with garlicky chimichurri sauce, offer a fairly tasty, sweet-savory minced-meat filling incorporating beef, raisins, walnuts, olives and onions but disappointingly doughy crusts.

The pinzas de cangrejo apanadas also sound more exciting than what lands on the plate. Described as crab claws rolled with crabmeat, breaded and lightly pan-fried, they turn out to be a trio of rather dry crab cakes formed Popsicle-like around the shell-on claws. The lively rocoto-pepper cream dipping sauce helps, though, as do some first-rate yuca fries served alongside. (An order of yucas fritas by themselves, from the side-dish menu, might be a better choice.)

Other appetizer choices include anticuchos, pepper-marinated skewers of char-grilled chicken, beef heart and whitefish. A starch lover's starter of papa rellena and yuca rellena makes a tuber fan's surf and turf: The deep-fried, stuffed mashed potato surrounds a beefy filling flavored with onion, walnuts and raisins, while the golden mashed cassava root encloses a mixture of diced shrimp, octopus and squid.

Rio's also offers several lime-laced ceviche seafood mixtures, including two based on fresh sole, and a couple of Brazilian tiraditos, thinly sliced sashimi-style cuts of marinated lenguado, a flatfish, plus two salads and a pair of seafood-based soups.

Entree choices range from the $14 aji de gallina, a Peruvian dish of shredded chicken breast in cheese, walnut and yellow-pepper sauce, up to the $35 churrasco Buenos Aires, a 24-ounce Argentinean-style porterhouse steak, but most fall into the $16 to $19 range, served in substantial portions.

A safe, if rather dull choice, anticucho de lomo exotico, skewers big chunks of grilled filet mignon interspersed with pieces of pineapple and other tropical fruits. You can also get tenderloin paired with scallops and shrimp in the brochetas Rio D'Janeiro or doused with Peruvian brandy, tomatoes, onions and soy sauce in the lomo saltado al pisco. A char-grilled, bone-in rib steak provides another choice for beef lovers.

More daring diners might go for something a bit more exotic, like the conejo al carbon, nicely grilled, herb-marinated rabbit on the bone, a trifle chewy, but very flavorful and not at all gamy. Chunks of roasted potato topped with a dollop of cream cheese, come alongside.

Seafood choices include halibut en costra de culantro y ajo, ample portions of perfectly grilled halibut fillets delicately crusted in garlic and coriander and piled on a bed of greens and diced potato.

The seafood theme continues in dishes like arroz con mariscos, with shrimp, octopus, squid, mussels and clams over rice; arroz salteado con camarones, a fried rice and shrimp entree with oyster sauce; majarisco, a dish of mashed green plantains topped with shrimp, octopus, squid and conch; and a market-priced grilled lobster sauced with aji chilies, garlic and white wine.

The big portions continue into dessert, which is definitely worth saving room for. Tart, fruity and intensely flavored, the passion-fruit cheesecake, or tartina de maracuya, set into a pool of strawberry sauce, has a delectably creamy consistency. The merengue de chirimoya, a big martini glass full of a light pudding made from the sweet, mild-tasting tropical cherimoya fruit, gets additional flavor from fresh berries, orange segments and interspersed chocolate-cookie crumbs.

Also delicious, the bread pudding comes in a large, chilled slice, laden with walnuts, raisins and pineapple and moistened with Grand Marnier-laced pineapple marmalade.

Other desserts include crema de papaya al licor de casis, a mixture of papaya and vanilla ice cream that will be familiar to anyone who's ever dined at a Brazilian restaurant, and rellenos de lucuma, eclairs filled with cold, creamed lucuma, a fruit unique to Peru that tastes like maple syrup.

• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. Our aim is to describe the overall dining experience while guiding the reader toward the menu's strengths. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.

Rio's D'Sudamerica

2010 W. Armitage Ave., Chicago, (773) 276-0170, www.riosdesudamerica.com

Cuisine: South American fusion

Setting: Glossy, white-tablecloth space in Bucktown

Price range: Appetizers $8 to $15; salads and soups $6 to $10; entrees $14 to $35; desserts $5 to $7

Hours: 5 to 11 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 5 p.m. to midnight Fridays; 4 p.m. to midnight Saturdays

Accepts: Major credit cards; reservations

Also: Valet parking available Friday and Saturday nights; no smoking; BYOB (liquor license pending); private room available

Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. Our aim is to describe the overall dining experience while guiding the reader toward the menu's strengths. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.