Friday, June 20, 2008

Restaurant review: Rioja, Denver

This is a review not only of a world-class restaurant, but another lovely big-city amenity: Denver's light rail transit system.

Staying with friends in Littleton on the south side of Denver, we wanted to have a nice meal downtown. The light rail system drops you right in downtown, and was a great low-stress alternative to driving and parking in the heart of the city.

A round-trip pass from the Lincoln station at the south end of the line to Denver and back was $8. The cars were attractive, clean, well-lit, and easy to use. We didn't have to wait long.

On a pleasant summer evening, there were lots of pedestrians in downtown Denver. Those of us who live in towns like Albuquerque with miserable mass transit are easily impressed by amenities like free shuttles and pedestrian-only streets. We even got rained on briefly: not a real downpour, just enough to be refreshing.

Our hosts are devoted foodies, and knowing that we'd only have time for one meal in Denver, they picked Rioja. The chef, Jennifer Jasinski, was right by the maitre d' station chatting with customers, and she came by our table twice to discuss our options. A very nice lady and, judging by the food, one of the great food artists of our time. The menu verbiage for the appetizer:
Fresh bacon: cardamom spiced Kurobuta pork belly, madras curry scented fresh garbanzo bean pureƩ.
Maybe this doesn't sound good to you, but it was one of the most exquisite appetizers I've ever had. The garbanzo puree smoothed out and complemented the richness of the bacon.

Flight of artisan blue cheeses: Bleu de Sassenage, Blue de Basque, Crimificato Verde Capra, house made curried date roulade, crispy pancetta frisee, red wine black pepper reduction.
Lest I not have room for dessert, I skipped the salad course and tried the flight of three bleu cheeses: one each of goat, sheep, and cow. The goat was really smooth and rich. The sheep version was my favorite: quite sharp, with a firm texture. I hesitate to describe the cow's-milk version as "middle-of-the-road", but it was between the others in creaminess and sharpness. All three were excellent examples of the style. The presentation was everything a foodie could ask for: one slender, crisp bread stick, a tablespoon of superb microgreens, a splash of red wine reduction on the side, and a mound of fig jam as a pedestal for a circle of crisp pancetta.

Scallops are my favorite seafood. I'll take good scallops over any form of lobster, crab, shrimp, or fish with fins, so it was a relatively easy choice to order the scallops. They were so wonderful, they recalled to me the best scallop dish I'd ever had: teriyaki scallop at Sanppo, a Japanese country-style restaurant that existed for many years in San Francisco at Post and Fillmore on the north side of the Japan Center. Rioja's scallops were perfectly tender inside, with just a bit of crunchy browned top. There were three scallops, each perched on a crunchy risotto cake, and adorned with a small dollop of smooth, rich green curry sauce. I wish I could enumerate all the ingredients of the vegetables and sauce in the middle of the plate. There were some slices of mango, a couple of beefsteak leaves (shiso), assorted greens. But there comes a point where one doesn't really care to dissect the dish, because it is such a glorious gestalt.

As a chronic chocoholic, choice of dessert was relatively easy (compared to choosing among all the riches on the dinner menu). Called "chilled s'mores pot de creme", it was a gorgeously rich chocolate custard in a ramekin with a layer of flame-caramelized house-made marshmallow, and two sticks of house-made graham cracker. Everything a chocoholic could ask for.

And now, back to the mass transit review. It might have been a good idea if we'd checked the baseball schedule before choosing our route back to Littleton: a Rockies game had just gotten out, and the light rail station near Union Station was wall-to-wall people. I had to strap-hang for well over half the ride back home, even though the transit district had added more and longer trains. With the cars near capacity, it got rather hot and sweaty in there. Still, it beats the heck out of driving.

For a small-town boy like me, seeing a reasonably well-organized big city is rather mind-boggling. Given the recent spike in gasoline prices, the transit district is finding itself overstressed. Even in cities, funding transit projects has been a hard sell for a long time, but now everyone is clamoring for more. Gov. Bill Richardson of NM is starting to look a lot more like a genius with his push for the RailRunner transit system, now open from Belen to Bernalillo and scheduled to open to Santa Fe late this year. It is unfortunate that the lead time for new transit routes is measured in years, when gas prices can double in a year.


slymongoose said...


So, where are the pictures you took?

longstop said...

there are cheeses and then there are cheeses ; there are cowmilk cheeses && then there are cowmilk cheeses ; there are goat cheeses && then there are goat cheeses ; all these and more i've discovered happily in la france.

right in the heart of the parisien touristrap i've sampled some really fine cheeses too.

someday i may even blog.

enjoy your foodtrips all over the west.

Kaa said...

Golly. I'm sitting here eating my yogurt with fruit, reading about Rioja.

Yogurt, strawberries, and blueberries never tasted so bland.