Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Rioja, Denver
Local Colorado cuisine with a Mexican-Mediterranean flair

We heard about Rioja because the co-owners were featured at the James Beard house on the Culinary Media Network. It sounded great, and we were in downtown Denver, so we thought we'd give it a try.

The interior is modern, with old brick construction and modern art on the walls to add a splash of color. We arrived early and were greeted promptly by the hostess, who had us wait just a few minutes for our table. She came out and got us, remembering us from that brief conversation. Our waiter, too, was prompt and friendly, allowing us to hang out and wait for our fourth person to arrive.

The kitchen, at the back, is separated from the restaurant by a traditional counter, but that doesn't, of course, block the smells. We were seated right next to it, so we got to see the dishes come over the counter and go out to the restaurant, which just made us hungry. So we asked for bread, and as it turns out, there is a guy with a basket who brings around a selection of delicious bread. There was a lavender sourdough that we liked a lot, a black olive baguette that I liked a lot, a garlic rosemary cheese biscuit that was the consensus favorite, and a wheat berry roll with salt.

The rest of the food, when we did order it, completely lived up to the bread. The house salad with gorgonzola and dates had just a light tossing of almond vinaigrette, an unusual flavor that went well with the sharp cheese and sweet dates. The saffron fetuccine--house-made--absolutely stole the show. Good fresh pasta, especially with the delicate taste of saffron, with roasted eggplant, sweet red peppers, a savory pork and fennel sausage, and a soft cream cheese made it really hard for us to split the dish, as we both wanted to keep all of it. The other dish, the lamb chorizo pizza, was less remarkable, though still really good. It came with mozzarella cheese and mint pesto, an unusual combination that worked even though you couldn't really tell that the sausage was lamb.

We weren't going to get desserts, but then we kept seeing the cheesecake come over the counter with a tower of strawberry slices stuck together, and we were so curious about how the slices were stuck that we had to order it for an excuse to ask the waiter. We also, while we were at it, got the beignets with the fig paste and sweet goat cheese, with port wine reduction, just because it sounded so strange we had to try it. The cheesecake, soft and creamy, also came with a strawberry-basil compote. The aromatic basil really went well with the sweet strawberry and cheesecake, as it turned out, just like the fig paste and sweet cheese inside the fried pastry worked with the sweet port wine reduction.

That was our experience through the whole dinner. The unusual menu items all went together very well, and exposed us to new tastes or new combinations of familiar tastes. We'd go back again in a heartbeat, if only for the pasta and to watch the towers of strawberries come over the counter, defying gravity. If you want to know how they do it, well, you'll have to go and ask.

No comments: