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Red Alert

Before it opened this Monday, I got a sneak preview of Rioja, chef Jennifer Jasinski's new digs on Larimer Street, courtesy of local PR impresario John Imbergamo, who's been handling "chef Jen" since her departure from Panzano earlier this year. The space -- which co-opted some of its real estate from Josephina's next door -- is simple but lovely, divided into two rooms with arched doorways, exposed brick, blown-glass fixtures, copper-topped bars, banquettes and table seating. The exhibition kitchen is a dream -- low-walled, well-appointed and covering the entire curve of the back wall -- and the dining room is light, airy and comfortable, even while filled with plaster dust and contractors hurrying to meet their deadlines.

But really, no one doubted that Rioja would be anything but beautiful. It's got a great location smack in the middle of Larimer Square, and an army of local designers and artists making light fixtures and art for the walls. These days, pretty is easy -- although it doesn't come cheap.

Nor is pretty alone enough. Indigo was a great room; Vega was gorgeous; Brasserie Rouge was one of the most perfect, best-designed spaces I've ever seen. And what do those three places have in common? They're all closed. So after my tour, I sat down with the final draft of Rioja's menu and evaluated what's going to be on the plates, rather than the walls.

Spaghetti-squash-and-carrot soup; duck consommé with tiny duck-meat raviolini; miso tuna skewered on lemongrass; bacon-wrapped venison; grilled salmon with saffron-poached endive; a ploughman's plate of Spanish chorizo, air-dried duck breast, speck, goat cheese, olives and truffle fennel salad: This menu is not what chef Jen's fans from Panzano will be expecting. Panzano is Northern Italian -- a showpiece restaurant in the Hotel Monaco where Jasinski was locked into a themed board of fare. Sure, she shone there -- garnering nationwide praise for the place, and recently getting named Colorado Chef of the Year by the ACF -- but here at Rioja, she's on her own, drawing on years of experience working with some of the biggest-name chefs in the business (Andre Rene at New York's Rainbow Room; Jody Denton, late of the Mansion on Turtle Creek; and her culinary mentor, Wolfgang Puck) as well as her own unique style.

Great menus are like music, like dense experimental poetry, and part of the joy in reading them comes from trying to find the inner chef amid all the mâche, the red curry, the caviar and wildflower honey. Jasinki's Panzano days show in the homemade stuffed pastas she loves so much -- the potbellied "pansotti" stuffed with herbed cheese, the veal-and-pork-stuffed Italian-market cannelloni with black truffle sauce. Her coastal French and Spanish tastes are revealed in fennel purées, duck confit, cipollini onion aigre-doux tart and the sour-cherry port-wine glaze on a bacon-wrapped venison loin with parsnip croquette that has me drooling already. There's a bit of Wolfgang in the menu's careful fusion highlights (lemongrass tuna with tatsoi, tuna tartare, New Zealand mussels in Thai curry broth, a lobster club sandwich, fettuccine with truffle essence and Japanese matsutake mushrooms -- the second-most-expensive fungus in the world) and a lot of intelligent classicism, but above all, this is a highly personal exploration of Jen's two decades in the business: a culinary memoir done in food.

I can't wait to read -- and eat -- it all.

Homeboy: You know what I like best about Robert Sansone? It's not his food, not his new restaurant, Sansone's Bistro, in the former home of Chez Walteron South University. It's not even that he spent time working in Rochester, New York, my home town. No, it's that while he was there, he worked the line at the Irondequoit Town Lounge, a near-legendary shot-and-a-beer neighborhood joint on Titus Avenue, where I used to buy smokes when I was just a wee, tender young lad. See, they had this vending machine in the breezeway, and if you were quick and careful, you could operate it entirely out of sight of the bartender. Every young smoker on the block knew about the ITL, and most of us knew that with a little jimmying and an acceptance of our criminal dispositions, the machine could be made to pay out for free.

Ah, the good old days...

Anyway, Sansone is in Denver now, just like me, and last week we got to talking about his new place. A veteran of Ship Tavern, Piscos and the Metropolitan Club, Sansone bought the venerable Continental Swiss restaurant in May 2003 with the idea of keeping it going as Chez Walter until he felt comfortable switching to the cuisine he wanted. That change came after two dark weeks this July, and when the rechristened bistro opened, it did so with a "substantially different menu," according to Sansone.

What he has going now is a 'round-the-world tour of classical dishes and preparations, from foie gras de canard with raspberry vinaigrette and brie en croûte over burgundy lingonberry sauce to weiner schnitzel, duck l'orange, three-cheese fondue and paella. Of particular note is his prix fixe "Tours d'Europe" menu, from which customers pick their protein (shrimp, veal, chicken, sole or pork), any international preparation from a list of a half-dozen choices, then bracket their entree with appetizers and desserts.

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