Although I dedicated nearly 2000 words to Rioja in my review this week (and an additional grand to Larimer Square, where Rioja is located, plus a few more hundred to a blog teasing my review of Rioja), I forgot to use any of those words to mention my favorite thing about my most recent meal at Rioja.
A single mint leaf.
Though I am a certified junk-food fanatic -- spending my culinary down-time stuffing my face full of Junior Mints and Entenmann's glazed donuts and grocery-store chocolate cakes that I eat right out of the box -- over the past couple of years, I have given up almost completely on restaurant desserts. Why? Because if I am offered one more molten chocolate cake or flourless chocolate torte, one more dish of creme brulee, one more plate of gummy, mealy, double-sucky apple tarte tatin, I am gonna punch someone. No one in particular, just whoever's closest. And since that's usually some poor, defenseless waitress doing nothing more than trying to pad the bill a bit at the end of the night, I decided a while back that it would be better for all concerned if I just eschewed dessert menus altogether, assuaging what little appetite I have left at home with a fistful of movie theater Raisinets or bowl of Lucky Charms.
And even though I'd heard that Rioja had a fantastic dessert board, I stuck to my guns.and skipped the sweetened goat cheese and black Mission fig beignets, the warm cashew tart and s'mores pot du creme. "No thanks," I said to the offer of dessert, applauding myself for my restraint and waiting for the bill.
Which is when Rioja snuck one over the plate -- delivering to my table one single candied mint leaf, crusted with white sugar, looking almost like an ice sculpture sitting all by itself, alone on a small white plate.
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It tasted like candy and vegetables together, like green grass and pure sugar. It was like a grown-up after-dinner mint--only better for being so smart and so simple and such a nice parting gesture from the kitchen.
There are restaurants in this town that I love almost exclusively for the little extras tacked onto each and every meal: the macaroons at the Palace Arms, which are so good that they can almost make me forget the two or three hundred bucks I just dropped on dinner; the olives at the Churchill Bar; the truffled egg salad sometimes tossed around by the waiters at Luca d'Italia; the free chips and salsa offered at those few places in town that still offer anything for free.
And now, with the candied mint leaves at Rioja, I've got one more place where the best part of the meal is also the cheapest. I'll be going back for the food, of course, but it would be worth returning to Rioja for this mint leaf alone.