It's long been the downtown destination for Latin-style seafood. But more recently, RioMar has also become an ongoing exploration of a nebulous question for the restaurant world — in our age of high-profile chefs, what happens to a restaurant when its name chef moves on?
Two entwined but distinct threads have always guided RioMar, a long-running restaurant in the Warehouse District. One is the food of the Spanish-speaking world, from the ham-obsessions of central Spain all the way to the hot peppers and tropical fish of Madrid’s onetime colonies. The other was the life journey of chef Adolfo Garcia, a New Orleans native from a Panamanian family who trained in Spain and had a story for every dish on his menu, whether that story sprang from a tapas bar in Seville or a strip mall taco joint in Kenner.
But Garcia left RioMar last year to focus on his many newer restaurant ventures. Since then, RioMar has become an ongoing exploration of a nebulous question for the restaurant world — in our age of high-profile chefs, what happens to a restaurant when its name chef moves on? That’s a question that would have very rarely come up just a generation or two ago, when individual chefs at most restaurants had far less acclaim and restaurant customers were less likely to track their career moves.
But that was then. And today, it matters that the torch at RioMar has been passed to one of Garcia’s protégés, the chef Miles Prescott. His answer to the succession issue has been to keep following RioMar’s pan-Hispanic culinary direction while adding his own accents.
The changes are hardly sweeping. Just like before, you still can get the signature four-ceviche sampler, or the short-grain rice cooked with squid and its black ink, or the falling-apart roasted pork with plantains and rice and beans or the Gulf fish escabeche, covered with an oily, pickled relish that presses the same kind of flavor buttons as an olive salad.
One of those four ceviches, though, is now made with coconut milk, which gives a still-tart but mellow, creamy flavor in a way that’s better tuned to cooler weather. One recent special was red snapper grilled skin-on and topped with sweet crab knuckles and a green, garlicky sauce hailing from Peru. At dessert, a golden Galician crepe was wrapped around basil and honey sabayon with apples cooked in sherry and cinnamon. Bacalao, the Spanish salt cod, remains a specialty here, whipped into a casserole or maybe sliced over greens with torn hunks of crusty bread. If salt cod seems archaic in our age of flash-freezing and overnight deliveries this properly-done version shows how ancient methods of food preservation can endure in a cuisine on their own delicious merits. Just think hams or pickles for two more familiar examples.
During the lunch shift, RioMar essentially functions as a Spanish tapas bar patronized by big office parties and conventioneers with a nose for sniffing out garlic. In the afternoons, when much of the rest of its block is closed behind heavy shutters, groups inside RioMar pass around terracotta bowls of grilled octopus and garlic shrimp or plates of Iberian ham, blood sausage and white anchovies.
I do miss some of the old chef’s dishes, and I miss Garcia’s ebullient presence in what had been his flagship. But with such a diverse range of Spanish and Latin American source material up for reinterpretation, I’m also looking forward to what happens here next.
800 S. Peters St., 525-3474