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 puree, 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 have 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.
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There's a first time for everything, and this week I'm offering up my first re-review of a restaurant that hasn't changed owners, hasn't changed concepts, hasn't thrown off the shackles of culinary oppression and become the Indo-Bulgarian fusion restaurant it always wanted to be. Rioja is the first place in this city to earn a second review just for being itself -- a much more settled self than the restaurant I wrote about four years ago.
For those of you who've been loyal fans of the restaurant all these years, I don't think you'll be surprised in the least about how I feel about Rioja today.
In this week's Cafe section, there's also more news from Larimer Square, as well as a little bit of history, and how those few hundred feet along Larimer Street have become the life and beating heart of our nascent culinary scene.
But it ain't all sweetness and light this week. There's still one place on Larimer Square that bugs me -- that I've never been happy with and has never (in my rarely humble opinion) lived up to its promise. Think you can guess which joint I'm talking about? Well, you'll have to wait until tomorrow to know for sure...