By Mark Antonation
By Nathalia Velez
By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
I'm sitting at Rioja on a Monday night. A full book Monday night — rare for the best restaurants in the best of times, bordering on miraculous for this day and age, this city.
I have one of the weird tables: a lonely deuce stuck between two four-tops, sitting, essentially, right in the maw of one of the arches that divide the main floor from the overflow side room. There are parties on either side, having what, for them, passes for fun. At one table, four men — leathery and wrinkled like old wallets, wearing tailored suits and watches that probably cost as much as I make in a month — are putting away bottles of wine like Paris vintners watching the Nazis roll down the Rue Saint-Jacques. At the other, two couples seated boy-girl/boy-girl are talking about Fruition and TAG and the Olive Garden — the last behind their hands, tittering and whispering like they're being naughty, like they're discussing heavy bondage or insider trading.
"I still go there, you know?"
1431 Larimer St.
Denver, CO 80202
Region: Downtown Denver
"I go for the breadsticks."
"Oh, but this is obviously better..."
Solemn head-nodding all around.
To my right, the men discuss the menu and golf and boats. To my left, "Olive Garden!" and a sudden explosion of high, fluttering laughter like a riot of small birds escaping toward the ceiling. But I have my head down in my own bubble of private joy, a dopey smile hung crookedly on my face, smelling cardamom and curry, the comforting, savory blankness of a bean purée and the salty, sweet-sour tang of pork belly, perfectly seared, hot from the kitchen. I have bacon, and in my world, everything is just fine.
Two months ago, when the International Association of Culinary Professionals was in town, I'd tried to get a walk-in spot at Rioja and was told that the wait would be two hours. Maybe more like three. There was foodie royalty in the house, and he and his big party and all his hangers-on weren't going anywhere. A week ago, I'd stopped in for brunch — doughnuts and ham and melted cheese and olives. Even though the sangria was weak and the hot raspberry mascarpone inside that first doughnut burned the shit out of my tongue, everything else was brilliant. Rioja chef/owner Jen Jasinski was in the house during this ham-and-doughnuts breakfast, cooking first, bossing the line, then eating a family meal with her crew in the lull between services.
I see Jasinski out a lot — at events and demos, in her kitchens (a few years after opening Rioja, she and partner Beth Gruitch also took on Bistro Vendôme), a minor titan in chef's whites with a button nose and a big, half-crazy smile so wide that when she lights it up, it looks like the top half of her head might fall right off. A couple of days before I was turned away at the door, I'd stood back a pace or two and watched her work a table at the Denver Art Museum — buttoned up tight in her jacket, doing take-away plates of ravioli for a few hundred IACP conventioneers and talking with every single person who found her, tucked away in a corner, smiling and laughing and actually behaving like this kind of thing was fun. I went back twice myself. Had a friend pick me up a third plate — the ravioli were that good. And watching Jasinski work (standing off to the side, just out of sight, one step shy of peeking at her through a fern like some kind of creepy stalker), it occurred to me that maybe — maybe — I'd done her wrong a few years back.
I've done this job for close to seven years now and reviewed more than 400 restaurants in and around Denver. And believe it or not, I don't have a lot of regrets. I sleep just fine at night. But the review I wrote of Rioja back in May 2005 has always hung with me as one that was...incomplete. It was a not-entirely-rosy picture of a restaurant still struggling with its image and trying to get back off its heels after a massive opening, the stress of huge crowds and a first menu change. I'd waited six months before writing that review, and even though that was double the traditional three-month buffer, I've always suspected that it wasn't enough. Some restaurants take longer than others to grow into their spaces. Four years ago, Rioja was not quite ripe.
I can't tell you how many times I've been back to Rioja since then. Ten? Twenty? And with each meal (most good, some merely middling, all depending on the night, the crew, the season), I came closer to this point: a new, full review of a restaurant with the same owners, the same staff, the same chef, the first I've done since starting this job. I knew it was probably time after stalking Jasinski at the DAM, watching her laugh, stuffing myself with ravioli. And now, sitting under the arches, sniffing my bacon, I know for sure.