Venue Review: Jibarra
To say that the original Jibarra raised the bar for Mexican restaurants in the Triangle is an understatement on the order of saying that habaneros are spicy. The menu featured a mix of traditional regional fare and playfully innovative dishes by Ricardo Quintero, who was formally trained in Mexico City. The selection of rare premium tequilas was dazzling, as was the cosmopolitan chic decor.
Evidently, it was all too dazzling for a region long dominated by Tex-Mex joints and taquerias. Complaints that Jibarra's prices were "too high for a Mexican restaurant" were common, according to Joel Ibarra, who owned the restaurant with his brother Hector and father, Jose. Before Jibarra reached its third anniversary, the owners announced that they were closing the North Raleigh restaurant. Jibarra would reopen downtown, they said, promising that the reincarnation would be more casual and the prices lower without sacrificing the spirit of the original.
By and large, that promise has been kept. The new Jibarra opened in January in the historic Depot. Quintero (who has returned to Mexico City but still consults on the menu) jettisoned big-ticket items while retaining popular dishes such as cochinita pibil and snapper alla Veracruzana. Most entrees are under $20 now, and an expanded selection of small plates, soups, salads and tacos further increase the possibilities for an affordable meal.
Chef Quintero did a good job of training the kitchen staff to execute his creations in his absence. Cochinita pibil, a small plate featuring shredded pork shoulder marinated with anatto and sour orange, is every bit as succulent as it was in North Raleigh. Presentation is elegant, too, the pork flanked by lightly pickled onions on a banana leaf, and the plate decorated with dollops of a golden (and surprisingly subtle) habanero salsa.
Tostadas de salpicón de pato are likewise impressive. Presented as a towering stack of crisp triangular tostadas, each topped with lettuce, tomato, onion, avocado and juicy shreds of poached duck, the dish is what nachos must be like in heaven.
Also listed under the Small Plates heading are four variations on the seviche theme. I'm partial to the Acapulco (seasonal white fish -- recently grouper -- in a marinade of lime juice and olive oil punctuated with cilantro, tomato, olives and serrano chiles) and Dos Salmones (smoked and rare diced salmon presented as a colorful molded cylinder flecked with bits of avocado and pico de gallo).
Straddling the line between shareable starter and light entree are half a dozen listings under the heading of La Taqueria. Options range from the wildly inventive tacos de cachete (pork cheek served over phyllo pastry) to the comparatively traditional carne asada. Tacos de camaron, a deconstructed presentation of sautéed shrimp encircling a salad of chiffonade lettuce and radish in a light citrusy dressing with small corn tortillas on the side, is a worthy choice.
The entree selection is modest in length but varied and boldly adventurous, with options ranging from a puff pastry-enrobed chile relleno to sea bass in Mexican vanilla bean oil over lobster mashed potatoes. Pollo al pastor, a twist on a traditional pork theme featuring boneless chicken breast marinated in pineapple juice and grilled to a juicy turn, is another winner.
The kitchen occasionally disappoints, but rarely are the disappointments major. Miscues run along the lines of a soupy tropical seviche with more cucumber and pineapple than mahi-mahi, or surprisingly bland Spanish rice.
Jibarra's weak link is not in the kitchen but in the dining room. Some of the wait staff apparently think they can attend to diners' needs while chatting with the bartender. They're mistaken.
The atmosphere of the new Jibarra is as vibrant and rustic as the old one was formal and restrained. At the center of the dining room, surrounded by an octagonal bar, the restaurant's prize collection of tequilas is showcased in the backlit alcoves of a wooden tower. The spirit of the old Jibarra survives in the new one, you might say, as well as the spirits.
Atmosphere: vibrant and rustic
Recommended: duck tostadas, cochinita pibil, pollo al pastor, cabrito asado