Breakfast and Brunch

Rioja Offers an Elegant but Inventive Brunch in Larimer Square

A trio of Bloody Marys at Rioja.
A trio of Bloody Marys at Rioja. Bridget Wood
Rioja's upscale setting makes for a luxurious brunch in Larimer Square, with classic dishes with modern flair matching the eatery's refined dinner menu. Beyond just breakfast dishes, Rioja's salads, sandwiches and unique cocktails will check every box on your list of brunch necessities.

Chef Tim Kuklinski was recently promoted from head chef of Rioja to culinary director over this one and four other locations in Jennifer Jasinski's Crafted Concepts restaurant group, where he has worked for the last twelve years. “This is a great environment, where we build relationships through food, which has made us into a family," Kuklinski says of the Rioja team and its guests. “We’re proud of our food. Our ethos is that food is a catalyst, and we want to use food to make your day better. And if you come in for brunch, we can start your day off great."

click to enlarge Start brunch with a panzanella salad - BRIDGET WOOD
Start brunch with a panzanella salad
Bridget Wood
Rioja's panzanella salad is a hearty winter version of the typical summer tomato-and-bread salad, with seasonal vegetables and ingredients. Sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, dried pomegranate seeds, croutons and shaved fennel are all tossed in mustard vinaigrette and topped with Parmesan cheese. With oh-so-sweet pomegranate seeds, bitter Brussels sprouts and rich Parmesan, this dish could easily overwhelm...but somehow the flavors work well together. Tender bites of sweet potato offset the croutons, which still have a bit of a crunch despite a dousing in dressing, making this dish a symphony of flavors and textures.

Speaking of croutons, Rioja welcomes brunch customers with the same complimentary bread service that you've experienced if you've ever come for dinner. Options include sourdough, olive, multi-grain, and a rosemary biscuit. The biscuit was light and herbal, but I also helped myself to the flavorful sourdough, which I can never pass up.
click to enlarge Eggs in Purgatory isn't as spicy as it sounds. - BRIDGET WOOD
Eggs in Purgatory isn't as spicy as it sounds.
Bridget Wood

Moving on to brunchier things, the Eggs in Purgatory (eggs in spicy tomato sauce) were served on a base of goat-cheese grits, with tomato-olive ragu and baked eggs on top. Despite the name, Rioja's version isn't too spicy, so if grits and tomato sauce sound appealing, I recommend giving it a try. The dish is garnished with a piece of grilled focaccia, great for mopping up the silky rich sauce.

Now for my favorite part, and arguably the best part of any meal: something breaded and fried. Rioja's chicken-fried steak with eggs is far from rustic country fare, instead coming out beautifully plated and made with tender bavette steak. It's still recognizable as chicken-fried steak, though, pounded thin, breaded in panko crumbs and sautéed to a golden crisp. The crunch panko coating stands up to a layer of mild green chile swimming with pulled pork. A side of Brussels sprout slaw and two sunny-side-up eggs round out the dish, a must-have for seekers of chicken fried steak.

click to enlarge Brunch is best with something breaded and fried. - BRIDGET WOOD
Brunch is best with something breaded and fried.
Bridget Wood
If you arrive closer to the lunch end of brunch, the Colorado lamb burger is a tasty choice and can be topped with bacon, avocado and a fried egg in case you need a little extra sustenance. If you’re looking for a charcuterie board, Rioja’s "picnic" has everything you need. And listed as a starter are Eric’s Doughnuts, but I would recommend getting the sugar-coated orbs, filled with lemon mascarpone and nested on blueberry compote, as a sweet but necessary dessert to cap off the experience.

For drinks, a Bloody Mary flight makes for a colorful trio, with a classic Mary, a kumquat Mary (a mix of kumquats, orange juice, tomato, cilantro, chiles with spices), and a tomatillo Mary (tomatillos, cucumber, dill, kiwi and spices). The Grapefruit Granita is an elegant option, combining shaved grapefruit ice with champagne, and Rioja also serves a daily rotating punch.

Rioja is located at 1431 Larimer Street and serves breakfast on Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. For more information, call 303-820-2282 or visit Hot tip: Rioja hosts wine-appreciation classes, with the next two dedicated to Champagne and roses; register on the Rioja website.
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Bridget Wood is a contributor to Westword’s Food & Drink section. She can be found wandering Denver, mimosa in hand, searching for the best brunch spots the city has to offer. She spends her weekends shopping for obscure records and working on the Sunday crossword puzzle. Despite her Boston roots, she is learning to love green chile.