Head chef Victor Branken and sous chef Sanele Ngcobo with Barrios co-owner, Andrea Manal. Picture: Peter Duffy

Durban - PLAKA in Palm Boulevard, opposite Gateway, has become BARRIO, with a revised menu. Otherwise, not much has changed. The Manals are still the hands-on owners, the decor is still an appealingly fresh mix of blues and white, the vibe is still casual and airy, the waiters are still pleasantly effective and the food is still tasty.

The major difference, one gathers, is that this is no longer a franchise operation, so creating an opening for menu changes. New are dishes such as penne with chilli, chicken and basil pesto, a fillet stuffed with roasted peppers, feta, garlic and basil, pasta with a creamy cashew nut, herb and wild mushroom sauce, and paella.

Those items might be justification for labelling this a Mediterranean rather than Greek restaurant (barrio is Spanish for neighbourhood), but on balance, the flavour is still essentially Greek.

Our waiter seemed happy that we decided to stick to the (somewhat shortened) mezze list for our lunch, and sped off to the open-plan kitchen, which seems to be run with the sort of military efficiency one would expect of a five-star venue.

A little bowl of tapenade is complimentary, with a couple of slices of toasted baguette. Later we would regret wolfing it down as the dishes piled up on the table.

Be they tapas or mezze, an array of little snacks to dip into and pick from is my favourite way of eating, and in the main, Barrio doesn’t disappoint.

Best of the items we chose was prawn saganaki: grilled prawns in a spicy tomato and feta sauce. You simply have to pick these up with your fingers and suck every last bit from the shells. They are that good.

Coming in a close second was pickled baby octopus in an olive oil vinaigrette. Toothsome but tender, it was as good as I’ve eaten in the Med.

Next, I’d probably rate the falafel, which can be indigestible, dry lumps, and usually are. These were crisp, soft inside and so tasty the accompanying hummus was almost superfluous (but good with pita).

Big butterbeans with spring onions and parsley are always popular in our household, and helped to counter the rather dense meatballs. I’m not sure I’d order those again, given the abundance of other riches such as spinach pastries, Portuguese-style chicken livers and grilled or fried haloumi.

If in meaty mood, I’d be more inclined to try the beef or lamb shish kebabs, or even meatballs in a tomato sauce. I certainly wouldn’t have the yiros again. It was much drier and tougher than the melting Turkish and Greek doner kebabs I remember.

But then again, those came with sauce, wrapped in pita, and street food, eaten with your hands, always tastes wonderful.

If I’d turned the page of the menu, though, I would have seen the section offering Lebanese-style lamb, beef, chicken, shish kebab or falafel shwarmas with tzatziki or hummus and pickled vegetables.

Ah well, there will always be another time. I might even get to the halva ice cream.

Prices: Mezze R39 to R89 (for the prawn saganaki); mains R73 to R170 (for king prawns).

Opening hours: Monday to Sunday, noon to 10pm

Telephone: 031 566 7456.

* KZN writer Erica Platter and photographer Clinton Friedman have done it again, with their second East Coast Tables cookbook - The Inland Edition - winning the Gourmand award for best African cuisine book.

This means the book will go forward to the finals of the Gourmand Best in the World competition. The results will be announced in May during the Beijing Cookbook Fair.

Congratulations to a team who prove that local is lekker.

The Mercury