More of the same at Rioja
After falling in love with Euclid Hall, I decided it was time to return to Rioja: Jen Jasinski and Beth Gruitch's first restaurant, the place where I sometimes take out-of-town guests but rarely go to otherwise. Still, this Larimer Square spot has been packed since the moment it opened six years ago, and the night I recently visited was no different, with corporate teams filling long center tables and couples cuddling up in the booths around the edges of the two dining areas.
My meal started out strong, with a quivering slice of Kurobuta pork belly, laced with fat and seasoned with the subtle spice of cardamom, sitting on an earthy garbanzo-bean purée in rich, savory broth. The dish recalled the familiar hominess of split pea soup, but the deconstruction into separate elements made it exciting and surprising. Unfortunately, the Brussels sprouts salad that followed featured slimy blanched leaves over a pungent Taleggio cheese fondue that highlighted, rather than suppressed, the characteristic of Brussels sprouts that most diners so desperately want to forget: the flavor that's reminiscent of dirty feet. The dish was drizzled with a pancetta lemon vinaigrette that needed a lot more lemon; the sweet fattiness of the dressing made the vegetable dish so rich, it was almost sickening.
Our entrée, a filet of halibut, came on a bed of undercooked purple onion, tasteless chanterelle mushrooms and fava beans next to a phyllo dough basket cupping a single sweet mission fig. The dish seemed disconnected: It was impossible to tell which elements were supposed to be eaten together, and no matter what you ate them with, the vegetables were dull. A quenelle of lemon crème fraîche helped, though, giving the slightly overcooked fish a shot of rich flavor.
The dinner ended on a high note with the PB&J, three cubes of peanut butter mixed with crème fraîche resembled light, velvety cheesecake; they were paired with a dab of crabapple jelly and one honey-roasted peanut, and plated with a thin peanut brittle box that held a scoop of tart grape ice cream. Every element added to the whole, and the dessert was inventive and delightful.
Good as it was, it wasn't enough to make me stray. When I'm in the Larimer Square area, I'll stay faithful to Euclid Hall for some time to come. — Shunk
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