Homemade fish ravioli is topped with a fish sauce with cherry tomatoes, shrimp and mussels, plus a side bowl of guacamole. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)
El Barzon is just rough enough around the edges to keep it from seeming slick. It has the white linens, the fresh crimson roses, the stemware and the high culinary standards of an upscale restaurant, and yet there is a down-to-earth aura about it. Unselfconscious friendliness and warmth on the part of the well-dressed staff are part of the appeal.
And then there is the two-pronged menu — Mexican and Italian — that truly adds a distinctive touch to the restaurant that later this year will mark eight years since Norberto Garita and his wife Silvia opened the doors.
No longer just the one small room they started with, El Barzon has expanded organically, to a second dining room and a roomier kitchen. Probably the most important addition has been the romantic, brick-walled courtyard in the rear, with its skylights, masses of growing blooms, including some fragrant gardenia bushes, and the final touch, a waterfall spilling over boulders in one corner. Definitely the place to be this time of year.
Mexican and Italian from the same kitchen? First-time visitors often have to be convinced that this is more than a gimmick, and they soon learn that it is. The two cuisines get equal treatment because they, too, are organic, stemming naturally from the experience of Norberto Garita, who learned his craft at top-rated Italian restaurants, notably Il Posto in Southfield, and Silvia Rosario Garita, who brought Mexican recipes from their home in Puebla.
First to the table, regardless of which menu direction is in mind, come a basket of fresh tortilla chips and the two house salsas, a moderately spicy red one made with garlic, chile de arbol and tomatoes, and a cooler green composed of tomatillos, jalapenos and avocado. Don’t push them aside even if you plan on ordering from the Italian menu. You’ll be hard pressed to choose between them. Both go well beyond the ordinary.
A notable Mexican dish is the often forgettable chile rellenos, available as appetizer or a main course, and a textbook example of what the dish of stuffed poblano peppers should be. A number of pastas are made in-house, including strozzapreti, the little twists served in one treatment with finely crumbled sausage in a subtle tomato cream sauce. Other pastas include housemade ravioli with a variety of fillings, baked lasagna and gnocchi in four-cheese cream sauce.
Elegant seafood dishes are typified by grilled whole branzino (European sea bass) with fresh herbs and garlic, and there are veal treatments as well from the classic piccata to saltimbocca with prosciutto, sage and white wine. The full menu is available at both lunch and dinner, with dinner entrees generally about $5 more than the same dish at lunch.
The premium bar echoes the approach of the kitchen, using freshly squeezed juices in its drinks. Margaritas are made one at a time, not in bulk. Housemade sangria is also notably fresh.
For dessert, the two-pronged approach continues, with flan from Mexico and tiramisu from Italy. Such a dilemma.
Note that reservations are always wise, especially on weekends. A lot of people have discovered this interesting place.
3710 Junction, Detroit
Call: (313) 894-2070
Rating: 3˝ stars (out of 4)
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tues.-Fri., dinner 5-9 p.m. Tues.-Thurs., 5-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 3-8 p.m. Sun. Closed Mon.
Prices: Appetizers $9-$12, tacos $2.50-$3.50, tortas $7, salads $8-$10, lunch entrees $15-$25,dinner entrees $15-$35, desserts $3-$6
Credit cards: All major
Liquor: Full bar, with an emphasis on tequila
Noise level: Moderate to high
Parking: Valet, as well as self parking in a rear lot
Wheelchair access: No barriers