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A Real First

Beginner's luck: Rioja may be Jennifer Jasinski's first restaurant, but the room has a pro's polish.
James Glader

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.

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.

The artichoke tortelloni was brilliant -- no other word for it -- with pursed folds of thin pasta stuffed with a stiff goat cheese and artichoke mousse floating in a broth sauce. That's a tough trick to pull off: miss the mark to one side, and you get ravioli bathed in dishwater; miss to the other, and you get something more like aroma therapy treatment than dinner. But Rioja's galley was dead-on, whipping up an artichoke broth perfumed with truffle, not overwhelmed by it, and set with little islands of whole, soft, nutty artichoke hearts veiled in powerfully funky queso de mano cheese. The carbonara special was busy with spring flavors -- fresh shelled peas, wonderfully sweet cherry tomatoes -- as well as smoked bacon and bits of prosciutto that added a serious salt kick to the smoky cream sauce that totally overwhelmed the handmade fettuccine noodles, which contributed nothing but texture. But the decision was clearly deliberate, because you don't put bacon and prosciutto in a sauce if you're not looking for salt. And, in fact, the only problem I had with any of the pasta dishes was a slightly dry and over-toasted cannelloni swimming in a beautiful, silky, perfectly balanced black-truffle cream sauce that I would've sucked up with a straw had one been offered.

The pastas weren't the only worthy dishes. The seared Muscovy duck plated over arugula salad with grapes and a balsamic demi was excellent, a galley standard well-translated to spring eating. The tender, stone-baked chicken had a good, crisp crust, had been expertly boned out, came topped with an interesting (read: not to my taste, but not bad) red-onion-and-fig jam, and sat on a bed of tasty garlic creamed spinach. But the promised roasted-vegetable "home fries" once again proved that anything on a menu in quotes will never resemble that quoted description. These were nothing but thickly julienned carrots and root vegetables used to prop up the half-chicken, and they looked orphaned once the chicken was gone. And the porcini-dusted wild striped bass was right up there among the ugliest plates I've ever been served, its brown-on-brown-on-brown color palette -- a gray-brown sun-choke purée topped with black trumpet mushrooms and limp, sluggish, brown porcini, crowned with an excellent fillet of striped bass, turned brown with more porcini dust -- dotted with an electric-green drizzle of chive oil.

While we waited for the check that would tally all this, I had a lot of time to think about why this new menu was nowhere near as satisfying as Jasinski's first attempt. Despite its name, Rioja is not a Spanish restaurant -- although there's always been a Spanish influence on some of the plates. Neither is it an Italian restaurant -- although pastas get a lot of play. Nor is it really a Mediterranean restaurant -- a catch-all label for chefs who don't want to be limited to a single cuisine -- because the offerings traipse a bit too far afield. What it is, is a Jennifer Jasinski restaurant -- a place featuring all the things that the chef felt like cooking, with nothing wedding them together. And while this approach worked well on the debut menu, which showed all the exuberance of a chef finally freed from the constraints of working for others, with this second round, it seemed like Jasinski had already used her best tricks and was beginning to flail.

The pastas are still wonderful, of course, but much of the rest of the fare seems to be suffering from an identity crisis. Solidly in the Italian corner, there's a good baked-mozzarella appetizer, wrapped in prosciutto and served with some of the best oven-dried tomatoes I've ever tasted; there are also simple pizzas coming from the stone oven and a Pecorino soup shot through with the sting of fine sherry. That's how Italians eat in the spring -- light, fresh and easy. From Spain, there are Manilla clams in a wine broth with chorizo -- very cool -- and a grilled salmon that's just lemon, lemon and lemon with olives, like summer in Spain under the olive trees. But to serve these dishes alongside smoked sturgeon and caviar? Tuna sashimi? That's weird.

Taken as a whole, Rioja's new menu is both energetic and almost impossibly convoluted -- a little something for every possible taste but not enough to really satisfy anyone except the most theoretical diner. And while there's no doubt it was time for Jasinski to open her first restaurant (because there always comes a point when any chef who wants to make something of herself must take the leap and open something), there's also no doubt that this is a first restaurant. It has all the passion and irresistible vibe that first restaurants tend to generate. It operates with a sense of freedom -- of being out from under the yoke of bosses and managers -- and that first-car, first-apartment, first-day-away-at-college sense that absolutely anything is possible.

Then again, this house has yet to learn that while freedom may be a wonderful thing, any chef left to her own devices also has the freedom to hang herself. The curse of a first restaurant is that the chef, suddenly liberated, feels the need to say everything she's ever wanted to say, all at the same time. And right now, as if the freedom is suddenly going to be taken away.

But it won't be. Rioja has a good space, a good crew and a chef with all the potential in the world. Now it's time for Jasinski to relax, to find a style and a cohesive vision, and to work each dish up from that point, one plate at a time, each cover as it comes.

Like everyone else, I'll be waiting for a table where I can witness the evolution. But I'll make sure it's closer to the door, in case I need to make a quick getaway.

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Rioja

1431 Larimer St.
Denver, CO 80202

303-820-2282

www.riojadenver.com


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