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I'd finished my last meal at Rioja -- my last official meal, that is -- and I couldn't leave. My party and I were done, had been done for maybe twenty minutes already. We had to-go boxes sitting on our table, our jackets in our laps, credit cards and fistfuls of cash in our hands. We wanted to pay the bill and just be gone, but for whatever reason, Rioja wouldn't let us go.
1431 Larimer St.
Denver, CO 80202
Region: Downtown Denver
Rioja picnic: $14.50
Baked mozzarella: $8.50
Manilla clams: $9.50
Pecorino soup: $6
Tortelloni: $15.50< br>Striped bass: $19.50
Baked chicken: $17.50
It wasn't like we were being ignored. Our water glasses kept getting refilled. Every time one of us got up to go to the bathroom (and considered, however briefly, just making a run for it), his or her napkin was retrieved and artfully refolded before the empty chair. Our plates had been cleared, our wineglasses collected, the wreckage of another marathon meal raked from the tablecloth. But still no check.
We were trying to imagine what might have caused the delay. A fire? Probably not. Two of the three Rioja kitchens -- the grill/sauté line and a smaller pizza kitchen that sticks out into the side room -- are wide open to the dining areas, and even the prep zone is just around the corner. So if there had been some disaster, we would have known. Everyone would have known.
So, then, something more insidious? Zombie attack? Alien abduction? Back-alley catfight? We even imagined that Rioja's unusual wall art -- blobby white smears spotted with colorful, back-lit glass plates that look like nothing so much as giant, radioactive amoebas with boobs -- had come alive and eaten our server. Or maybe we'd been laughing so hard over our boobed-amoeba jokes that the staff thought we needed some time to sober up before we were released back into Larimer Square. But we'd burned through the grape juice long before, and ours was just the uncomfortable laughter of hostages trying to keep up their morale. Surely, someone would eventually bring the bill. They wouldn't just lock up around us.
The worst thing a front-of-the-house staff can do -- worse than spilling the soup, worse than bungling the orders, worse than sneezing on my monkfish (so long as I don't see anyone do it) -- is to make me wait for the privilege of paying the bill. I understand that timing the check presentation can be tricky -- you don't want to wait too long, nor do you want to give the impression that you're trying to hustle customers out the door -- but it's something a server must master. If I've had a bad meal, the wait only gives me time to stew. And even if I've had a great meal, being made to sit there, twiddling my thumbs and uttering uncomfortable small talk long after the natural progression of plates and glasses has run its course, the wait becomes the only thing I can think about. That, and maybe running for the door.
So even after our release was finally negotiated with Rioja's credit-card machine, the amoeba jokes and that endless wait for the check were the memories that stayed with me. And that's unfortunate, because there are many, many better reasons to remember a meal at Rioja.
The restaurant opened last November to unprecedented fanfare, largely because chef Jennifer Jasinski -- who was well known in town but had done most of her kitchen time as second banana to guys like Wolfgang Puck -- finally had her own place. She'd come here following a very successful stint at Panzano (taking a good chunk of her staff and legions of hungry fans along with her), and when she and her partners brought Rioja in on time and on budget -- a phenomenal feat -- she instantly became Denver dining's newest darling. She was talented, she was smart, she was media-friendly (no tattoos, no unnatural relationships with farm animals, didn't use the word "fuck" like a comma) and, better yet, her joint was jammed from the very first day. There's nothing like success to fuel the fires of burgeoning celebrity.
I made a couple of turns through the dining room in the early months and was very pleased. The kitchen did a duck consommé with tiny, duck-stuffed raviolini and cutesy cookie-cutter vegetables that was fantastic. The Rioja picnic on the appetizer menu was filled with everything good in the world: Spanish chorizo, speck, dried duck breast, goat cheese studded with pine nuts, little olives, nuts and a truffled fennel salad as assertive as a punch in the mouth. The board of handmade pastas -- Jasinski's specialty -- featured decent noodles in absolutely sublime sauces handled with the restraint and balance of a born master of the sauté station. Rioja seemingly had everything: ardor and obsession in the kitchen, excitement on the floor and a crowd that couldn't get enough.
And now, Rioja is one month into a new menu, this one designed for spring. During our long dinner, before the discomfort of the ensuing hostage situation, we'd tried plate after plate. Although he would later ruin the impression, our server showed good timing with these, staggering flights over several courses, offering more wine at just the right time, clearing plates and replacing silver without interrupting conversation at the table. And there was a lot of food for thought.
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