A wonderful meal can teach us fascinating things about ourselves. I ate dinner at Rioja in Denver almost exactly one year ago when I attended a trade show there for work. This year, the show was held in Denver again, and I ate at Rioja on my final night in the city. I have been looking forward to visiting Rioja again for months. Chef Jennifer Jasinski’s mostly Mediterranean menu changes with the seasons and her fresh, creative food, particularly the deftly made pastas, have been lauded by Denver’s food press. The highlight of last year’s meal was a lemony, spring risotto with fava beans, morel mushrooms and a mild Italian cheese that I can’t recall specifically. Last night when I returned to my hotel room, I called Mike and rapturously recalled my meal in detail while he salivated into the phone. Only after talking to him did I realize that I had ordered a variation on that risotto from last year!
I know I am a relatively adventurous eater and always try to order new things when they are offered by good chefs. I seldom order any dish that I could just as easily cook at home with equal success. I suppose my choices at Rioja show that I gravitate towards certain types of dishes and ingredients without even realizing it. I’ve been known to say, “I’ll eat anything,” but I most definitely have my preferred tastes. These tend toward fruits and vegetables that aren’t always readily available like the fava beans and morels at Rioja. I also go crazy for figs, as fresh ripe ones are not easy to come by. I prefer lighter dishes without heavy sauces, but love meat roasted or braised and served with wine reductions of all sorts. I often choose fish dishes when uncommon varieties are offered in unique preparations. I fawn over softly cooked egg yolks used in any dish, but I will take pains to avoid ordering mashed potatoes because I think they are almost always smothered unnecessarily with copious amounts of butter and cream, detracting from the actual potato flavor.
That said, I thought I was shaking things up at Rioja when I ordered gnocchi, which I tend to think of as a bit heavy. I was very close to getting the tortelloni which promised delicate swatches of pasta filled with artichoke and goat cheese mousse in an artichoke broth. I passed on the tortelloni because I do not think I’ve eaten nearly enough gnocchi, and Denver’s restaurant reviewers seemed to unanimously agree that the most infallible aspect of Chef Jasinski’s menu is her pasta. Rioja’s Lemon-Thyme-Ricotta Gnocchi ($8.50) completely busted the myth that gnocchi is heavy, especially when made by a master. These were small, light and fluffy, tasting not too much of potato or ricotta, but a perfect balance of the two. They were boiled, then sautéed, giving them a slight brown crispness on the outside. They were served with a spare amount of bright, creamy meyer lemon nage (another rare ingredient that made this dish irresistible) that was not too puckeringly bitter, but soft and zingy. Also in the mix were the fresh favas and wild mushrooms of the year before, with some thin, lightly steamed pieces of asparagus to round out the palette of spring flavors. I certainly cannot fault the chef for sticking with flavors that work so well in her selection of lovely pasta dishes.
The menu at Rioja is loaded with dishes that appealed to me, including thoughtful versions of grilled quail, Muscovy duck, lamb and halibut. There are several unique salads and soups and an appetizer selection that I would like to eat my way through one by one. A lot of careful and considerate organization has gone into the menu as a whole. The pastas are available as entrée or appetizer portions, allowing you to mix and match from the menu’s various categories and eat as much or as little as you are hungry for. The wine list includes a nice mix of countries and varietals. The selection of about eight white, eight red and one rosé by the glass offers excellent variety with choices from Spain, Italy, Australia, France and California. The best part is that half glasses are available for half the price of a full glass so that, as the menu says, you can match wines with courses or simply sample several different bottles.
Before I even got to the menu, I was offered a selection of house made breads, including lavender sourdough, olive bread and orange-fennel rolls that were whimsically sweet with candied orange flavor. The best of the bread basket were the mini rosemary-goat cheese biscuits, a haute cuisine take on a homey classic that worked. This was accompanied by a large pat of good old-fashioned butter, an item that has been almost displaced by extra virgin olive oil. I love butter, and I completely appreciated the creamy spread with a slightly grassy flavor. I was nearly won over before my order arrived.
For my meal, I decided to get two smaller courses and pair them with wines. Of all the tempting appetizers, the Cardamom-Spiced Pork Belly with Madras Curry-Scented Chickpea Purée ($9.50) was a must-order. Ever since my first taste of pork belly, I tend to think that whenever it is offered by a trusted chef, I absolutely must have it. This fresh, good-sized square of tender pork was just slightly browned on top and soft and rich throughout. I think it must have been slow roasted, as there was no hint of crispness, just a melt-in-your-mouth taste of fresh pork. It was surrounded by a ring of earthy green puree, that was presumably chickpeas, but I suspect that they were mixed with favas. All of this sat in a light broth that was immediately enriched by the unctuous ribbons of melting fat that oozed out as I cut into the pork belly. I could not taste any curry at all, and there may have been just the slightest hint of cardamom. Despite the disparity between the menu description and the actual dish, I would not have changed a thing. The pork belly paired well with a Spanish rosé ($6.50) that was pleasantly dry, but not too acidic as to clash with the rich flavors.
With my appetizer portion of spring gnocchi, I drank a half glass (the pours are generous) of a Pinot Grigio/Sauvignon Blanc blend from Italy ($6). The wine was just in the middle of the spectrum between rich and acidic, complementing the delicate lemon nage, but not canceling it out.
It was terribly unfortunate that my body was still recovering from a weekend of indulgence at a family wedding, because Rioja’s dessert list contained several items that struck my fancy. I still slightly regret that I did not order the house-made angel food cake with rhubarb compote. When is the last time you saw angel food cake on a fine-dining menu? I was consoled by a touch of sweetness from Rioja’s house mint, presented with my bill. It was one large, sugared, fresh mint leaf, petrified like a fossil in amber. Rioja’s menu is full of unique details like this that make the beautifully prepared food memorable whether you stick to your favorites like me or make a conscious effort to order outside your comfort zone.
1431 Larimer St.
Denver, CO 80202