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


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