Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Rioja, Denver, Colorado



For our final night in Denver this summer, I made a point of making reservations at the LoDo (Lower Downtown Denver, for those not in the know) eatery of Chef Jennifer Jasinski, Rioja.  Rioja is one of three popular and celebrated Denver eateries in which Chef Jasinski has had a hand.  (The other two are Euclid Hall and Rioja's across-the-street neighbor, Bistro Vendome.)  A former protege of the renowned Wolfgang Puck, Chef Jasinksi was both a semi-finalist and finalist for a James Beard Award and has been honored as Chef of the Year by Denver Magazine.  In addition to her success as a chef and her recent turn as a competitor on Top Chef Masters, Jennifer Jasinski has also ventured into the role of author, having recently publish a cookbook containing recipes from the Rioja menu.  Certainly, Chef Jasinski is one of the best and, like the adage, I saved the best for last.

Larimer Square
Lower Downtown Denver
Unlike my visit to Fruition the prior night, our experience at Rioja was incredible from beginning to end.  Rioja is centrally located in Larimer Square, an eclectic block of one-of-a-kind restaurants and shops lined with old fashioned street lamps, baskets of flowers and garlands of white lights.  Just driving onto the street makes you feel like you've just stepped through a door into another place.  Parking is not an issue since Larimer Square's valet stand is located just in front of the restaurant (valet service is $8 for Larimer Square customers).  Inside, the restaurant decor is modern and artsy featuring colorful glasswork on the walls.  The tempo of the restaurant is upbeat and energetic, to match the brightness of the street outside.  Although the noise level is a bit louder than other restaurants, it matched the restaurant vibe and was surprisingly acceptable.  Seating is situated in a way that didn't require either my husband or I to raise our voices to hold a conversation.

Just as the night before, we had children in tow.  But unlike Fruition, Rioja was much more welcoming to them.  Admittedly, the more energetic atmosphere is more forgiving for the diner with children.  Their questions about the menu and our reminders to them to mind table manners blended in with the other din in the restaurant.  They - and we - were also comfortable enough to allow them to busy themselves with their iPods without concern for bothering other guests.  The masque of the noise aside, however, the staff was much more accommodating than our prior experience.  The team of staff that waited on us at Rioja was very coordinated, more pleasant and conversational and sometimes even witty.    They complimented our menu choices, made suggestions for how we might better accommodate plate sharing with our children and even encouraged it.  Loved that.

For the table, we ordered the cardamom spiced Kurobuta "fresh pork" as a shared first course (again because I just have to try the pork belly wherever I go).  I then ordered two entrees to share with my children - seared sea scallops with leek custard, black truffle vinaigrette, grilled baby leeks and a white grape-fine herb compote; and Alaskan halibut pan roasted with brown butter, rye pansoti with a potato-butter filling, radishes three ways, watercress puree and nasturtium flowers.  My husband ordered the full size portion of Chef Jasinski's basil gnocchi served with chanterelles, micro basil, sheep's milk ricotta, olive oil and shallots.  When everything came to the table, we ate tapas style with entrees placed in the middle and sharing plates passed all around.  It was great to share such wonderful food "family style" in such a lively and energetic place.

What I loved:  All of the dishes were truly wonderful.  Everything was cooked well, seasoned well and timely served.  The handmade pastas were exceptional.  They were light and flavorful with the right amount of bite, not too toothy.  Often I find the filling in filled pastas to be on the scant side.  Not at Rioja.  The potato-butter filling in the pansoti was ample in quantity and velvety smooth in texture.  And where either the pasta or the filling can often overpower the other, in this case both were equal in proportion and could be equally appreciated.  Another element I loved was the white grape compote.  Subtlely sweet but not so much to standout above the scallops; they were wonderfully sweet little bites.  Frankly, what I found most interesting is how all the components of our dinner complemented each other, even as we were eating elements from different dishes together.  Everything worked, even if it hadn't been planned that way.  Perhaps I just lucked out in selecting our dishes, but the wait staff did say that some of the menu items contemplate sharing.  So, I suspect that this might in part be due to the genius of Chef Jasinski.

What I didn't love:  It's really hard to think about the low points of this dinner because it was really a great meal.  So, I suppose I just have to choose the things I loved least.  One of the items on the bread service was something akin to an herb crusted breadstick.  I didn't like that as much as the other bread selections, but only because the herbs were embarrassingly caught in my teeth.  And I will say that I did not find the goat cheese and fig-filled beignets to meet my expectations.  I'm a bit of a fig fanatic, so the dessert menu had me at "fig".  But these beignets are filled more with goat cheese than with fig.  I love goat cheese too but it did make for more of a salty-sweet dessert than I was prepared for.  That being said, I did comment several times to my salt-loving husband that they would certainly be to his liking.  He's on a self-imposed sweets hiatus right now so unfortunately he did not verify for himself.  And since I ate all of the beignets myself, he'll just have to rely on my opinion!

Raspberry Spuma with
Lemon Pound Cake and Raspberries
How much I spent:  ($$$)  Our family of four had one first course, three second courses and two desserts along with soft drinks and coffee.  Both still and sparkling water are complimentary at Rioja so there were no separate water charges.  Even with all of this food, we only spent $136 with a generous 20% tip.   I'm sure we could have spent more but it just wasn't necessary.  We had plenty to eat!

My overall rating:  4 1/4 spoons.  I loved Rioja and will definitely plan to make it a regular stop on my future trips to Denver.   Just like our shared dishes, everything about this place worked together harmoniously to make dining there a really great experience, especially when capping off a great vacation.  The atmosphere, energy, food and wonderful service contributed to a great dinner all the way around.  I wanted something to be a hallmark of this summer vacation in Colorado and Rioja obliged by giving me something nice to savor the next day as I traveled back home.  I fell in love with Colorado the first time I visited years ago and Rioja is just one more reason for me to come back.




Rioja on Urbanspoon

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