Sunday, March 11, 2007

Rioja, Denver

If you believe the out of state food press, fine dining in Colorado pretty much begins and ends with Frasca in Boulder.

But once they get tired of waxing rhapsodic about Frasca, there's another group of restaurants they grudgingly admit might be pretty good: the Kevin Taylor restaurants, Mizuna, and Rioja.

Rioja, located in Larimer Square just a block off the 16th street mall, has a modest storefront, the kind you might overlook when just passing by. Inside, the space is small but cozy, done up in modern industrial with exposed bricks and ducts, with some funky lit glass artwork providing a focal point on one wall. Tables are close but reasonably spaced; you can walk between them without having to make people pull in their chairs. The sound level is a bit elevated; this isn't a place for a hushed dining experience.

I had chosen Rioja for my birthday dinner based not only on their reputation, but on a rave review of someone's Denver Restaurant Week experience. The reviewer mentioned the pork belly appetizer was one of the best things she'd ever eaten, and since pork belly was on my Top Ten list of things I had never tried and wanted to, it sounded very promising.

We arrived a bit early for our 7:15 reservation due to the vagaries of public transportation (I love taking Light Rail to the 16th street mall - no parking hassles and we can both have a drink or two), but the greeter wasn't fazed in the least - she said our table was almost ready and checked our coats (oh, how I love a coat check so I don't have to keep wondering if it's on the floor) immediately. By that time our table was ready, and we were led to a booth near the bar.

Rioja's bar is dark but stylish, and not the raucous kind of place overgrown frat boys would spend the night yelling at the ball game. I'm not sure there was a TV there at all. Someday I'm going to arrive way early for our reservation just to sit there and have a cocktail.

Our server arrived promptly with water, and kept a friendly but not intrusive eye on our progress throughout the night, with explanations of the menu where necessary.

Naturally, I started the meal with the fresh bacon appetizer: pork belly seasoned with cardamom over a bed of pureed curried green garbanzo beans. The pork belly was fantastic: meltingly tender meat under the characteristic layer of fat, cooked in such a way that the fat was silky but not greasy. (While I love my dietary fat, I don't like greasy food.) The rich flavors worked in an amazing way with the textures - my first reaction to my first bite was simply "oh. my. god." This dish is the best thing I've eaten so far in 2007, and it a strong contender for my top ten list of things I've eaten ever.

My husband had the duck confit pizza: duck confit, marinated mushrooms, watercress with sesame oil, onion, on a base of hoisin sauce and cheese. It was lovely - not quite as ethereal as the pork belly, but delicious in an earthier way. The pizza is also far larger than expected and could easily be shared by two.

For an entree, I had the Colorado lamb. I made the mistake of ordering it medium rare, as that's how I order my steak; I'd kind of forgotten in the midst of foodie euphoria that I prefer my lamb medium or better. I take full blame for that, and still, the lamb was quite good. But better was the bed of goat cheese polenta it was served over, and better yet was the bacon wrapped grilled treviso that came on the side. Treviso is a red leafy vegetable in the radicchio family, and here they'd cut a wedge, marinated it in olive oil and balsamic vinegar, wrapped it in a divine applewood bacon, and grilled it until tender. As good as the rest of the food was, the treviso was the stand out. I could eat a whole meal of that. There were also a couple of grilled roma tomatoes that couldn't shake off the fact they were mealy winter tomatoes, and which really didn't add much.

My husband had the grilled beef shoulder tender steak, done medium rare, and done perfectly. It was served with a brie bacon potato croquette: mashed potatoes, brie, and bacon formed into a cylinder, coated in breadcrumbs, and deep fried. What's not to like? It was fantastic. It also came with a side of spinach, very good but not spectacular. Then again, it was sauteed spinach, and was more of a counterpoint than a focal point.

Bread is not placed on the table but is brought around periodically. The night's selections were goat cheese biscuits, lavender sourdough, orange fennel rolls, and one other I can't remember because it was the most pedestrian of the lot. Of the three varieties we tried, the goat cheese biscuits and orange fennel rolls were the clear winners. The bread does come around regularly so if you want more, the wait is not long.

My husband had the sangria with dinner, and it was very good - not too sweet with lots of citrus. I had a glass of a Rioja Riserva red wine - way too tannic on its own, but cut through the lamb beautifully. Still, I think next time I'd forego the wine and try one of the house cocktails instead. (If I have more than one drink with dinner I'm liable to be face down in the polenta. Getting old is a bitch.)

Ok, I admit that part of the reason I chose Rioja over the other restaurant I was considering was dessert: it was my birthday, and that calls for chocolate for dessert. Rioja's website advertised a chocolate peanut butter torte: a layer of peanut butter sponge cake, a layer of peanut butter, then chocolate cheesecake, topped with caramelized bananas and a banana caramel sauce. It was, indeed, sufficiently chocolate enough to satisfy my perennial chocolate tooth.

My husband had the fig-goat cheese beignets, about half a dozen little puffs in a port wine reduction. Again, it wasn't cloyingly sweet, but fruity and flavorful.

Portion sizes are reasonable, and reflect the dedication to quality, not quantity.

Rioja is simply one of those restaurants which not only lives up to its excellent reputation, but exceeds it. The meal as as good as any I've ever had, and I'm looking forward to eating there again, preferably while dragging some friends along. This is the kind of restaurant I want to see more of in Colorado.

Date visited: 3/5/2007

Hacienda Colorado, Littleton

It was cold, it was raining, it was late, we were tired, we were very hungry.

These are the reasons we tried Hacienda Colorado in Littleton. Not to mention the other places we tried to get into first had a 75 to 85 minute wait. Did I mention we were hungry?

With only a 40 minute wait we found seats at the bar, a more civilized way to pass the time. The bar menu was tequila heavy, as one might expect in a Mexican restaurant, but they still advertised a "top shelf" mojito that was very good indeed. My husband had a Negro Modelo - they also had a reasonable list of Mexican beers.

The server in the bar brought us chips, salsa, water, our drinks, and our check in rapid succession. She checked back often to see if we were ok, and kept the chips and salsa coming. (They're complimentary at Hacienda Colorado.) From her attentive service I figured we might have stumbled on to a decent restaurant.

Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there. We were seated on the patio (this is in March in Colorado) which was enclosed with some flimsy plastic sheets anchored with sandbags (lovely decor). Even though the patio was heated, every time the door to the main building opened a rush of cold air swirled around our legs.

Worse, the lighting out there was non-existent.There were overhead light fixtures, at least 12 feet up, and with maybe 20 watt bulbs in them. There was not enough light to read the menu. Period. Management obviously knew this was a problem because they had a flashlight for patrons to borrow.

In retrospect, this is the point where I should have called it and said we need either a better table or we'll find somewhere else to eat. Knowing that all the other tables in the place were full I'm fairly sure we would have had to take option 2, and I did mention we were hungry. Hungry to the point where I was feeling the blood sugar drop and starting to feel awful.

So I took the flashlight, read the menu, and ordered the barbacoa burrito. My husband took the waiter's suggestion and ordered the Baja camarones.

Half an hour later, we were on our fourth serving of chips and salsa, and wondering just where our entrees were. The waiter said "oh, I forgot to mention the Baja camarones take longer". Thanks, buddy. Lots.

The entrees eventually arrived, and the Baja camarones were pretty good - shrimp stuffed with cheese and jalapenos and wrapped in bacon. They came with a lemon butter sauce and pico de gallo, and a side of the worst beans either of us had tasted in a long time - flavorless but with a nasty aftertaste.

My burrito was, to put it bluntly, lousy. It was stuffed mostly with more of those awful beans, the shredded beef barbacoa was an afterthought, all rolled in a gummy tortilla. The pork green chile sauce on top didn't have any pork in it as far as I could tell, and if there was queso in or on the burrito I didn't see it - the waiter had removed the flashlight at that point so we were more or less eating in the dark.

Our server had given his spiel earlier in the evening about how everything was made from scratch in house - frankly, if this is the best they can do, I would suggest they call Sysco for some frozen entrees and raise the quality of their food.

Frankly, this place ranks as one of the worst places we've eaten in a very long time. The food is overpriced, service is slow, and we were seated in an area that simply should not have been in use at all at this time of year. No, we won't be going back.

Date of visit: 3/10/2007