With Rachel having her work’s summer conference in Denver last week, how could I turn down the chance to come along? After all, I had never been to Denver, let alone visited the state of Colorado, so we decided to make a mini-vacation out of it.
After spending the day in Boulder, we checked into our hotel in downtown Denver on Friday night. For the sake of spontaneity, I decided to keep our dinner plans a secret until we arrived at the restaurant.
Located on charming Larimer Street in the LoDo area of Denver, I had learned about Rioja after performing some online research on highly-acclaimed restaurants in the area. Turns out that the Mediterranean-themed venue was tops on a variety of lists, and considering that Friday night was our one free night of the week before Rachel’s conference started, I figured we might as well do something on the fancier side.
Thankfully, Rioja took reservations as we were promptly seated when we arrived. Our waitress soon greeted us and asked for our drink order. I went with a glass of red wine while Rachel ordered the blackberry whisky sour, the restaurant’s most popular cocktail. After having a sip, I wish I had ordered one myself. Featuring blackberry whiskey, house made sour mix, soda, and lemon, it was one satisfying beverage.
As for dinner, everything on the menu sounded absolutely delicious, and unsurprisingly, we had a difficult time deciding what to get. After spending at least fifteen minutes reading over the list of options, at the bottom of the menu was an answer to our indecisiveness: “Tasting Menus Available. Please Inquire With Your Server.”
Our waitress explained that the two of us could split smaller portions of two dishes from each category: starters, salads, pastas, and entrees (or at least that’s how we understood, but more on that later). Rachel and I immediately agreed that this was the best course of action not only because we wanted to try so many things, but that we initially couldn’t make up our damn minds if we went the a la carte route.
Before our first courses arrived, we were treated to a homemade selection of bread which alluded to how great this dinner was going to be. The selection included rosemary goat cheese biscuits, lavender sour dough, orange and fennel rolls, and olive loaf. All four varieties were simply fantastic, but it was the lavender sour dough that stood out the most.
We started with the handmade mozzarella, wrapped in smoked prosciutto, with grilled bread, oven-dried tomatoes, arugula, and green olive pistou. Although it was slightly hard to split this small sandwich into two, it was a great way to commence our tasting journey. The mozzarella and prosciutto combination perfectly complemented the tomatoes and arugula. The bread got a little soggy from the olive spread, and we thought it may have been more effective as an open face sandwich instead of two pieces. Nonetheless, we couldn’t wait for our next course.
Next up was the Thai scallops, made with lemongrass panna cotta, compressed pineapple, plantain tuille, coconut kiffir lime purée, and a Thai red curry vinaigrette. To put it in one word: wow. This may have been our favorite dish of the night.
When we were first deliberating what to order from the regular menu, Rachel kept eyeing the salads. Normally we would skip salad and try more adventurous starters, but these salads seemed incredibly creative and delicious. For our tasting, we were served small portions of both the watermelon and beet salads.
The watermelon salad included baby heirloom tomatoes, organic red and yellow watermelon, Valbreso feta, compressed cucumber, sweet chilies, watermelon vinaigrette, and a micro lemon balm. This was paired on a single plate with the beet salad, composed of roasted candy striped beets, cucumber mint vinaigrette, snow drop goat cheese, crispy beet chips, pickled red onion, micro beets, and mint syrup.
While we thought both salads were excellent, I was more partial towards the watermelon while Rachel liked the beets. I’m not a huge fan of goat cheese (much to the chagrin of Rachel) but I could not stop raving about it while eating the beet salad. It was just incredibly fresh without its flavor being too pronounced that I couldn’t taste the other ingredients.
Up next was the pasta course. The first dish was saffron spaghettini, which featured summer vegetables, roasted eggplant, La Quercia lardo, heirloom tomatoes, scallion, black oil cured olives, piquillo peppers, basil, and extra virgin olive oil.
The other pasta was an artichoke tortelloni, which was made with goat cheese and artichoke mousse stuffed pasta, artichoke broth, truffle essence, queso de mano cheese, and chervil.
The spaghettini was a light and delicate dish which was apt given the warmer weather. Meanwhile, I could have ordered an entire bowl of the tortelloni for myself. Between the goat cheese/artichoke mouse stuffing and the wonderful truffle sauce, this was a pure delight. I can see why this is one of the most popular pastas on the menu (all of which can be ordered as an entrée, by the way).
Our entrees soon arrived, but instead of them being presented in a sampling format, each person solely received their main course. We weren’t sure if this was the tasting menu portion or not as the serving size seemed rather large given the sizes of the previous courses we consumed, but neither of us thought it was enough of a substantial claim to make a fuss over of.
Anyway, I ordered the Colorado lamb two ways while Rachel got the halibut Provençal. The lamb arrived as a grilled t-bone as well as a house-made merguez sausage and was accompanied with a crisp couscous pillow, caramelized fennel, tomato coulis, and preserved lemon yogurt. Mediterranean flavors were brought to life in this exquisite dish. The t-bone was incredibly tender and flavorful while the sausage, which resembled more of a lamb slider, was packed with spice albeit a little too rare in the middle for my liking.
But man, that lemon yogurt! It was a dream pairing between that and both pieces of lamb. Throw in the creative couscous pillow, which had a nice crunchy layer outside with soft couscous stuffed inside, and you have yourselves one breathtaking entrée.
For her entree, Rachel got the halibut Provencal, which came with grilled artichoke, artichoke mousse, tomato-feta-zucchini tart, black olive fennel vinaigrette, and crispy milk poached garlic. She thought it would be similar to the artichoke found in the tortellini but the waitress assured her that they would be completely different.
While all the components were incredibly unique and made for a beautiful dish and presentation, she was simply too full from the other courses to truly enjoy it. What really stood out was the poached garlic – it was sweet instead of overpowering, and was like nothing she ever had before.
We passed on dessert as we were beyond stuffed and asked for the check. When we received it, it had turned out that the waitress had charged us for tasting size portions of our meal up until the entrees, which we were billed at full price! There appeared to be quite a bit of confusion on both of ends as we had asked for a tasting menu while the waitress thought we still wanted regular-sized entrees. I mean, why would we order regular-sized a la carte entrees if we’re ordering from a tasting menu?
We explained to the waitress that we had never specifically asked for full-sized entrees, though it did explain why we received such large portions and could barely eat half of it. She was very apologetic about the misunderstanding and removed the scallop course from the bill, which we thought was very nice.
Despite the snafu, we had a lovely dinner and cannot recommend Rioja enough should you ever visit Denver. Chef Jennifer Jasinski marveled us with her talents as we unceremoniously dubbed her “the Bryan Voltaggio of Denver” while we savored each course. In fact, we loved it so much that Rachel went back a second night for dinner during her stay! The next time we’re in Denver, a meal at Rioja is clearly a must.