Mio, Downtown

Mio is a restaurant stuck on Vermont Ave. just north of K Street, a dead zone for no real reason. It has undergone several transformations over the years, but the one thing that has remained constant is its co-owner, Manuel Iguina, who has struggled with the restaurant’s identity; yet, that identity is now teasingly close to being just what Mio – and the city – needs.

After not having great success with “known” European-trained chefs (including two who worked at Maestro), Iguina decided he was going to jettison the idea, and return to his Latino roots for inspiration (he’s from Puerto Rico, and is well-traveled in Mexico and Central America). To me, this seemed like a perfect idea, and about a year ago, I was pretty much blown away by the lounge menu – it was the first “fine dining” restaurant to offer pinchos, and had the best empanadas in town.

Two nights ago, I went back and while both of those items are still on the bar menu, Mio is nominally trying to reconcept itself as “Urbano Latino,” which will eventually feature items you’d find in capital cities throughout Mexico, Central America, and South America. Again, I thought to myself, “Great!” That’s exactly what this area could use right now.

As of this writing, however, the dining room menu does not bear out the concept, which is in a nascent state (Iguina was leaving for Mexico the next day to interview two known chefs). They offer no bottled beers, and the best draft I could find was a Samuel Adams Winter Lager ($6) with nothing remotely Latino to be found.

Gnocchi de Yuca con Setas ($21) sounded like it had so much potential – gnocchi made from yucca! And it does, but the execution was all wrong for the concept, the gnocchi being pasty, and the abundance of Manchego cream sauce completely dominating the dish, even the otherwise wonderful wild mushrooms. Why, oh why, couldn’t these gnocchis have been smaller, more golden-brown, less pasty, and not drowning in a gummy, cream-based sauce that came straight from Europe?

Asopao de Mariscos ($24) is described as a “hearty classic Puerto Rican rice and seafood stew,” and was actually quite good, but came across more to me as a mild seafood gumbo than anything. This dish, however, was less recipe-flawed, and more in need of better execution – it, too, has potential.

And so does Mio, a restaurant again in transition, hopefully for the last time because with the right kitchen leadership (which is going to involve completely revamping this extremely European-influenced menu, and unabashedly going towards pure, modern Latino recipes), it could quickly become one of the hottest tickets in town. Think about it: how many of us wouldn’t flock to this handsome restaurant if we could get true, Urban Latino dishes found nowhere else in DC? I certainly would, and I have faith that Manuel Iguina can make this work. This is a restaurant I’m really pulling for – we have such a rich Latino representation, both in terms of upscale diners, and also talented line cooks whose hearts lie in their native regions. The time is right for this, but it’s not happening just yet. One, rock-solid chef is all it will take to turn this all around.

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