What defines an essential restaurant? Several opinionated friends and I were recently discussing that topic during dinner at a trendy newcomer that's amassed a flurry of flattery since opening its doors. It's a restaurant-of-the-moment, but will it still be relevant in six months? Will the crowds continue to jam the doors? More important, will it have made an indelible mark on Denver's dining landscape ten years from now? As a prelude to our annual Best of Denver issue, we're spotlighting, in no particular order, fifty restaurants -- old and new, classy, cool and conventional, strip mall and belle of the ball -- that are the Mile High City's most essential places to eat. These are the places that every foodnik in Denver should have on his or her feed-me list.
No. 47: Rioja
"When Wolfgang Puck came into Rioja in 2005 to have dinner, we all sat around the table, and I could just see how proud he was of what I'd achieved." Those words, from the mouth of Jennifer Jasinski, chef and co-owner of Rioja, were part of her Chef and Tell interview in 2010, and Jasinski, who cooked alongside Puck for eleven years before leaving California for Denver, was definitely a chef on her way up, a chef whose first restaurant -- she now has three -- would give Denver major culinary clout.
Rioja, still one of this city's most influential restaurants, has accumulated more accolades than perhaps any other Denver food temple, specifically for its innovative, infatuating and startlingly fresh Mediterranean-inspired cuisine that's refreshingly free of gimmicks and cliches. And Jasinski, a James Beard Award winner and a contender on Bravo's Top Chef Masters, is an unassailable master of practiced technique, turning out ambitious, intellectual dishes that are consistently nuanced and persuasively expressive. In a nutshell, Rioja manages to nail just about everything you could want in a restaurant, thanks to the kitchen's uncompromising precision coupled with an unwavering commitment to elevate local cuisine, and the fact that locals and tourists alike still clamor to get a reservation is proof that Rioja's powerhouse presence is resilient.
Best in class: There's absolutely no better bread basket in town.
Must try dish: Any of the housemade pastas, especially the stellar artichoke tortelloni. Be still my heart.
Denver's Fifty Most Essential Restaurants
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