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 Walter on 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.
"It's Continental European," Sansone says, explaining that the concept incorporates a little of everything he likes and everything he's learned during his time in the trade. While Sansone isn't always in the kitchen, the recipes and menu are all his, and he never hesitates to step back onto the line when an extra hand is needed. In the meantime, he's a hands-on floor guy, making sure everyone is having a wonderful meal and excellent service.
"I make it a point to come out and meet every customer," he says. "And things have been going pretty well. We have some really good days, then some days we wonder where everyone is -- but that's just the way, right?"
In an attempt to get more bodies through the door on those slow nights, Sansone plans to have an open house for the media at the end of the month -- sort of a delayed opening party that he put off until he was positive that he had his staff, his menu and his kitchen entirely in line, exactly the way he wanted them. "It's the kind of thing where you want to be able to put your best foot forward," he says. "And I think we're there now."
Leftovers: Boulder's Cream Puffery, a storefront joint I fell in love with a year ago ("Do You Believe In Magic?," November 6, 2003), has fallen on tough times. All that great Cuban food -- the ropa vieja, the pastellitos and croquettas -- has been slowly disappearing over the past few months. First the dinner specials were canceled, then the lunches, until all that was left were a few savory pastries in the bakery case -- and those available only if you showed up early enough to get them.
Last week, I finally got Puff owner and patissiere Amy DeWitt on the phone. "Are you calling about my plight?" she asked. No, I replied, I was calling about mine -- I hadn't had a decent dulce de leche or ham-and-cheese croquetta in months.
And that's when she gave me the bad news: The Puff was done, over, finito. I talked to her on Thursday; the last day of business, she said, would be that Saturday.
"You know, during the wedding-cake season, we were rocking," she said. (The Puff did a great business in wedding cakes -- and DeWitt will keep her hand in that even after her place closes.) "But now, it's so dead, I can't pay my rent."
So sometime soon, DeWitt will hold a funeral service for the Puff, where friends, regulars and addicts can gather and mourn. "Look, I'm a great artist," DeWitt concluded. "And I'm a good-looking woman. But I am not a good businessperson. I can admit that. And it's just a relief not to have to be chasing my tail all over this place day after day anymore."
Also busted in Boulder: Prufrock's Cafe & Bakery, whose space is turning into a sub shop.
And although I'm sad about the Puff, I was glad to hear that chef Mike Long will offer his "Artist Homage" dinner at Opus, at 2575 West Main Street in Littleton, on December 2. That's when his kitchen prepares a special menu based on some of the twentieth century's most influential artists. It's five courses, five wines, five painters, seventy-nine bucks a head and reservation-only -- but check out this lineup: a creamy tomato-lobster bisque a la Warhol; tuna and foie gras "cubism" with smoked gelee in honor of Picasso; Monet done in freshwater shrimp, watercress broth and vegetable "flora"; Pollack rendered in spattered beef risotto; and Long's "Persistence of Chocolate Memory" dessert paired with a d'Arenberg port for Dali.
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Long does dinners like this every few months, taking some theme -- classic kitchen movies one time, Island cuisines another -- and creating a specialty menu. It's fun for him, fun for diners and always a kick for me to see a guy who knows his stuff getting a chance to show off.
And finally, while the big news on Larimer Square this week is the opening of Rioja -- and rightly so -- three more spots in the neighborhood have either just opened, are about to open, or will soon reopen. The venerable (read: played out at three decades) Josephina's closed on September 27 for a major menu overhaul and remodel (it even gave up some of its space to the next-door Rioja); it should be rolling out the red carpet and a new look in the next week or so. "We're thinking the 9th or 10th of December," says Joe Vostrejs, general manager of Larimer Square Management. But it could go as late as December 13.
Dates for the grand opening of Martini Ranch, which has been renovating the old Soapy Smith's location around the corner on 14th Street for months, are similarly inexact. "Those guys are still being coy," says Vostrejs. "Let's say December 15, but that's very approximate."
Meanwhile, Gelazzi Gelato Italiano Cafe opened last Friday at 1411 Larimer, right next to Ted's Montana Grill. It's an Italian gelato shop designed for urban consumers -- a yuppie ice cream stand, to be blunt -- but before any of you class warriors start getting your undies in a twist, consider this: Gelazzi is an ice cream store (and espresso bar and mini-pastry shop) with a liquor license. And you know what that means: Yeah, baby, alcoholic ice cream. Gelato sauced with Baileys Irish or girly peppermint schnapps; warm lattes spiked with Kahlúa. More booze and ice cream -- that's what it's gonna take to get a miserable old crank like me through the upcoming holiday season.