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Kurobuta pork belly, seared on the surface, rubbed with cardamom, properly rested so that it isn't wet with fat, and mounted atop a chunky mound of curry-spiced garbanzo-bean purée, green like smashed peas, smooth as whipped potatoes. It's a singularly delicious plate — the best of a whole long stretch of them that kept mounting with each meal at Rioja. The doughnuts; a plate of house-made mozzarella wrapped in smoked prosciutto, topped with a roasted-tomato jam, served with a green-olive pistou; a tall pilsner glass of cold Fat Tire and a plate of scallops over a peanut-and-coconut risotto cake with Thai green curry — all of them had been ordered and eaten in an attempt at chasing down that moment, that rising point, at which Rioja is at its best. I've always suspected that every now and then, this room and this kitchen have the rare power to come together into something greater than their parts. Like an anthropologist, like a deep-jungle explorer, I've wanted to experience one of those moments for myself.

The bowl full of bacon is it. I live briefly in the moment, the laughter and boat talk falling mute on either side of me as I dig in with my fork and split the slab of pork belly in half.

Before the bacon, there'd been a too-busy bowl of candied lemon gnocchi piled with Dungeness crab, grape tomatoes, summer squash, fava beans, greens and an olive oil emulsion. The gnocchi themselves — tiny things, no bigger than the first joint of my pinkie — were wonderful: seared quickly in a hot pan and tasting of nothing more than the butter they'd been browned in and the clarified butter the crab had been poached in. But the rest of the dish was overkill.

Jen Jasinski has reason to smile at Rioja.
Jen Jasinski has reason to smile at Rioja.

Location Info

Map

Rioja

1431 Larimer St.
Denver, CO 80202

Category: Restaurant > European

Region: Downtown Denver

Details

Rioja
Bacon $9.50
Picnic $16.50
Mozzarella $9.50
Gnocchi $22
Artichoke tortelloni $18.50
Halibut $26
1433 Larimer Street
303-820-2282
Hours: Dinner nightly, lunch Wednesday-Friday, brunch Saturday-Sunday

I'd had Jasinski's trademark artichoke tortelloni — the plate for which she is justifiably famous, a perennial inclusion on every one of her menus. Handmade tortelloni, stuffed with a goat-cheese-and-artichoke mousse, set adrift in a deeply savory, warm and comforting artichoke broth touched with white truffle and topped with a slice of queso de mano, peeled thin as a sheet of paper so that it melts over the pasta, into the broth. It's excellent, but it's always been excellent. Ditto for the Rioja picnic — a garde-manger master's exercise offering olives and fried balls of goat cheese and sliced meats (prosciutto, salami, speck) and fennel salad and orange slices and everything else good in the world, but more an example of artifice and design than of actual cooking. The flatbread breakfast burrito with shrimp and chorizo? Guilty-pleasure good, all hot and eggy and addictive in its way (I'll be back for another as soon as I can manage), but not really indicative of the galley's true intentions.

No, the bacon is it. The bacon is what I've been chasing, on and off, for more than four years.

And then it is gone and the waitress is clearing the plate. She asks about another drink (but of course...) as the tables on either side of me carry on with their evenings. Then my main arrives, ideally timed. And because I am a good boy — because I was sitting there in an attempt to clean up my karma, because the food gods love me and want me to be happy — I get something even better than the bacon: a too-classic fast return on my wishes.

Halibut is an ugly fish. Gray and greasy and heavy on the oily fish flavor. But this kitchen has made halibut beautiful — pure white, cooked in butter, seared gold on top and tasting like maybe two or three or four other pieces of fish have tasted in my life: light and chewy, absolutely fresh, moist and, in texture, like a cross between a lobster and a marshmallow. One perfect filet, laid atop a nest of shredded, smoked prosciutto fried like bacon (more bacon!), with quartered artichoke hearts, a touch of romesco, a dab of compound pine nut butter. One composed plate, showing both excess and restraint, balance and creativity and an absolute sense of technical control.

I have had a lot of meals at Rioja since I wrote that first review. Each of them approached excellence but missed by a hair — some vital edge of brilliance lacking or falling away at the last moment. But this is the meal I've been longing to have for years. Two plates, both the best the kitchen has ever served me, stacked one after the other like a one-two punch. Sitting there in my bubble of happy, my own little world of bliss, I'm pleased to know that, finally, I'm going to be able to give Rioja the review it deserves.

To see more of Rioja, go to westword.com/slideshow. Contact the author at jason.sheehan@westword.com.

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