Sunday, October 16, 2011

Part 3 - Rioja

The last part of my journey in Denver's dining scene took me to Rioja.  I had looked at the menu online prior to arriving here.   It sported a nice range of choices of meats and seafood that had a nice emphasis on interesting flavor combinations with local ingredients.  It was also going to be the biggest of my three meals and therefore, I would be able to try entrees, a starter and potentially dessert.  I also wanted a dining experience that wasn't hectic or too industrial.  I wasn't here on a business trip or a power lunch or a date.  I was here to enjoy a moment of calm with a dining experience focused on the food. 

The moment I walked into the restaurant, I'm greeted by a split dining room.  The immediate impression was one of warmth.  Too many a time have I walking in and was greeted by an overwhelming desire to stuff ear plugs deep into my head and hope that the food is good enough to keep me from fleeing the premises screaming.  This place was different.  It had a lovely dark yellow/orange glow to the lighting like most places and the lights all came from one area: the kitchen.  My choice of seating was booth, table, or chef's bar.  My choice was simple.  Like a moth to the flame, I chose the bar with no hesitation whatsoever.   I sit down and I'm impressed by the fact that I have a two small containers of seasonings black pepper and pink sea salt.  I was very impressed that pink sea salt was used as on table seasoning.

The small team was working efficiently and I was pleasantly surprised to see Chef Jasinksi in the kitchen leading the troops.  Things were looking good.  Although my brain wanted to order 3 dishes, I stuck with 2 selections as my stomach was already feeling the effects of the previous two meals. 

Starter:  White Miso Soup with steamed Prince Edward Island mussels, honshimeji mushrooms, sweet chili, cilantro.

At first, this starter was definitely too sweet.  The white miso had this overwhelming sweetness to it that made this into a miso nectar.  However, when I got a bit of everything onto my spoon, my whole perspective changed.  The sweet chilies with the honshimeji mushrooms and the salty mussels created this elaborate painting of all types of flavors.  It was a very playful combination.  I don't normally go for sweet foods, but this starter really shook up my normal routine.  All in all. 7/10.

Entree: Pan Seared Halibut
cucumber wrapped salad of Dungeness crab & avocado.  Halibut was topped with hearts of palm tarragon crème fraîche, heirloom tomato carpaccio and vinaigrette, crispy shallots, micro parsley

First off, is it just me or does Denver have an obsession with micro greens?  Anyways, back to the main point.  This dish was perfect without the cucumber wrapped salad.  The halibut was seared excellently.  Meaty and substantial in its texture and full of moisture.  The tomato carpaccio created a nice sweet and tangy base for the fish.  This flavor was then repeated in the hearts of palm and vinaigrette.  The crispy shallots on top added yet another texture.  When eaten alone, the halibut stood out brilliantly.  Eaten in combination with its supporting cast, and you have a wonderfully execute ensemble.  The textures that one encounters on this journey included crunchy, crispy, snappy and juicy,  There was so much brightness associated with this half of the plate.  The other half is occupied by a richer and more savory counterpart.  The Dungeness crab with the avocado with creme fraiche was decadent.  Deep sea flavors permeated through the creme fraiche and were delicately elevated by the cumber wrap.  If the halibut half can be characterized as the artistic free spirit, the Dungeness crab is the earthy sensual seductress.  These two together form a visually stimulating pair.  I was beyond happy.  My impromtu dining companions had the same exact reaction to this dish.  We debated the merits of whether or not the halibut was seasoned enough.  At first we thought it would have been better served to have a bit more seasoning so that it can stand up to the richness of the crab.  After some thought, we concluded that Chef Jen knew exactly what she was doing when she planned this out.  You can't appreciate the richness without some brightness next to it and vice versa.   I would have given it a full 10/10 if the presentation was a little cleaner.  By virtue of the vinaigrette, it is rather liquidy and will tend to run amok if the plate is disturb even slightly.  Regardless, I was thoroughly happy with this if all I had was the halibut.  Overall rating of this entree: 9/10.

This was a wonderful conclusion to my food journey in Denver.  I hope to go back to Colorado and try some more amazing food soon.  I hear of magical things in the land of Boulder.  :)

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