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Article posted: 10/16/2013 6:00 AM

Small plates burst with bold flavors at Geneva's Altiro

By Deborah Pankey

Things I learned while dining at Altiro Latin Fusion: In the right hands, roasted peppers can be transformed into an ethereal soup; grapefruit juice does magical things to a margarita and never be embarrassed to ask your server questions.

I'll start off by delving into the last of those lessons in hopes of saving you any frustration during your first visit to this newest gem in downtown Geneva's glimmering dining scene.

Altiro serves small plates. The idea is to order an array of items and share them around the table, although the menu doesn't spell that out. The left side of the menu -- al bocado -- includes more traditional entrees dished up in smaller portions. Items listed on the right side of the menu -- al taco -- come tucked in four small tacos per order.

The flip side of the menu includes appetizers, soups, sides and beverages -- like the aforementioned al Jarrito margarita (one is barely enough to sip all the way through dinner, but two can put you under the table) plus a handful of handcrafted cocktails, wines, beers and fresh waters (aguas). It seems the "dinner" printed on the menu designates the meal (vs. lunch and brunch) and not "dinner" in the entree sense. Printing new menus with an explanation of the serving style could go a long way toward eliminating any fusion confusion.

Three brothers-in-law own Altiro, which opened in March at 308 Anderson St. in a small strip center off downtown Geneva's main drag. The place is quickly gaining fans.

The small dining room is sleek and modern with restrained splashes of color. The foyer provides a few spots to sit while waiting for a table. And wait you will, especially on a weekend. Even with a reservation we waited 30 minutes for a table.

Much of the furniture is handmade. A nice touch? Yes. But comfortable? No. A few more throw pillows might help the benches rimming the restaurant, but I'm not sure how to remedy the tiny stools lining the communal table that anchors the space. The seating situation just doesn't jibe with the relaxed pacing and lingering often associated with small-plate dining. And on a Saturday night -- at least from 7 to about 9:30 -- the crowded room is hardly conversation-friendly.

Miguel Villanueva runs the front of the house while Roberto Avila and Jose Trejo oversee the kitchen. The chefs hail from Mexico City and over the last dozen years have worked in a variety of restaurants all over the suburbs and Chicago. What they create in Altiro's kitchen (you can watch the action through storefront windows while you wait for a table) is not Mexican food. In fact, there's not a cheesy enchilada or bean burrito on the menu. Altiro's cuisine meshes locally sourced products and seasonal ingredients with influences from Spain, South America, Italy, France and, yes, Mexico. The result is plates of beautifully presented, boldly flavored food.

So once we figured out how to navigate the menu, we got down to the business of making our selections. We must have selected well, because there wasn't a morsel that didn't leave our mouths happy and bellies hungry for a return visit.

For starters we opted for the guacamole sampler (al trio, on the menu that featured a unique grape-infused blend); al cocktail, a ceviche-style treat of lime-marinated tilapia, avocado, onions and tomato mounded atop crisp tortillas; and al cuaresmeno, the creamy soup crafted from the roasted peppers that give the dish its name. The soup teetered on this side of too spicy; a swirl of cheese and avocado provided a cooling effect.

Locally farmed skirt steak, chorizo and gooey Chihuahua cheese make for a kicked-up queso fundido, elevated even higher by tomatillo salsa. The carnitas tacos feature slow-roasted pork belly and a rich red salsa balanced by pickled onions. There was so much more we wanted to try, but a miscommunication with our server, our already full bellies and the lateness of the evening -- especially for our sons -- wrapped up the meal. While there isn't a children's menu, the kitchen did accommodate a request for cheese quesadillas. Villanueva even offered a tour of the kitchen to the youngest, who was getting antsy as the adults lingered over the last of the pepper-flecked risotto and pork.

We didn't leave without getting dessert (kids will always stay up for dessert, right?). The fried plantains topped with homemade strawberry jam and bites of Mexican Key lime pie provided just the right hit of sweetness to cap the meal.

On my next visit, I plan to dig deeper into the menu. Lamb roasted in cactus leaves and Basque shrimp await exploration.

Ÿ Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.

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