Bringing it all back home

For a period of about two and a half years, dating back to its opening in the spring of ’07, it seemed Mio’s ethnically ambiguous moniker would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The place flitted from chef to chef and thus from cuisine to cuisine — there was the Stefano Frigerio period (he of the late, great Maestro in Tysons Corner) until Frigerio hit the bricks, paving the way for the Nicholas Stefanelli/New American era, but then Stefanelli likewise departed. Not to mention the interim chefs and guest chefs from Spain who preceded those two … suffice it to say that through these many shake-ups, Mio — true to its name, though sadly — suffered from something of an identity crisis.

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But here’s a story with a happy ending. To hear owner Manuel Iguina tell it, Mio, by the end of its string of previous incarnations, had become a “foodie destination with great accolades from critics, but unfortunately with little commercial follow-through. It was not what I wanted and it wasn’t me.”

So Iguina did what had to be done, taking over the kitchen in August of 2009 and repurposing the place into a purveyor of what he dubs “Urbano Latino” — or “sophisticated Latin cuisine, above and beyond the Nuevo Latino thing.”

His current vision is for the restaurant to evoke the city-center of places like Santiago, Lima, Mexico D.F. and his own hometown of San Juan, Puerto Rico — locales, Iguina aims to remind diners, where texture, flavor and spice vary well beyond the queso-atop-seasoned-beef that too often stands in for “Latin” north of the Rio Grande. Chimichurri, not chimichangas — that’s the establishment’s M.O.

In terms of ambiance, the reimagined Mio fulfills Iguina’s stated mission nicely. Rather than proclaiming its Latin bona fides garishly, with the loud colors and busy ornamentation we norteños have come to expect from Central and South American establishments, here the space is kept noticeably muted, all straight lines, dim recessed lighting and cool tones, blue and gray forming the dominant motif. If the same complaint could be lodged against the décor — that it’s all a bit indeterminate, theme-wise, and could just as easily befit, say, a chic downtown sushi spot — Iguina and Co. have nipped the argument in the bud by allotting a certain amount of room for splashes of eye-catching color: the vivid painting on the column separating the dining room from the foyer-cum-lounge area, por ejemplo.

All of which would go for naught, of course, if the food weren’t up to snuff. It is. Mio neatly avoids another pitfall by way of its commendable restraint, doling out sauce and spice with a sufficiently light hand that the stars of the show — read: top-notch cuts of meats and fish — can luxuriate in, but are never drowned out by, their accompaniment.

Nowhere is this more evident than with the Calamares con Ajo, Setas y Chiles de Simojovel, an appetizer consisting of baby squid pan-roasted with mushrooms, chilies and garlic. All too frequently a victim of the breading with which it’s coated prior to cooking, the calamari at Mio, tender, plump and bursting with brine, is left to shine largely on its own, the beneficiary of an ever-so-subtle smoky boost from its aides-de-camp. (The only problem could be having to face your food more or less as it arrived from the sea; a far cry from your usual deep-fried rings, this is squid that actually looks like squid.)

The soups and stews hew to the same less-is-more philosophy — in flavor profile if not in the richness of their contents. On a recent visit, both the Chiapas-inflected Pozole, with its corn-based broth and delayed chili-pepper zip, and Asopao de Mariscos, a traditional Puerto Rican rice stew, fairly burst with their respective proteins: soup-spoonfuls of shredded chicken, in the case of the Pozole, and extra-large shrimp, scallops and hunks of whitefish in the Asopao. Hearty but not excessive, spiced amply without being overwhelming, either offering would be perfect for warming up — without making your nose run — on a day of deepest winter.

With the main course arrives something of an age-old dilemma: surf or turf?

The Filete de Res, a perfect-pink buttery beef tenderloin served atop a heavenly white-bean puree, makes a strong case for the latter — but alas, it’s the Trucha a la Parrilla, or grilled sea trout, that wins the day.

Sheened lightly in oil and seasoned only delicately, the fish is at once crispy to the touch and so tender it yields to a fork’s slightest sideways prod — it’s the perfect guilt-free follow-up to one of those rib-sticking, cockle-warming stews. And it just might save you enough room to order one of Mio’s indulgent postres: Be sure to try the Tres Leches con Fresas, a lighter, moister, airier take on strawberry shortcake.

Perhaps, then, Mio’s finally found its niche: reminding Washingtonians that there is such thing as subtlety, refinement and variety — wonderful variety — in Latin cuisine. As such, Iguina’s restaurant is proof that yes, you can go home again.