Imagine yourself seated at a patio table that overlooks palm trees and a sandy beach and gives way to the tranquil, blue Pacific. Dressed in your finest aloha wear, and possibly with a flower in your hair, you sip a tall colorful cocktail with a little paper umbrella floating on top. As the sun melts into the azure horizon, turning the sky from fiery rose to delicate pink, you settle into a casual meal featuring local vegetables, fresh fish and fine meats.
Keep this image locked into your mind as you head over to Riley's ... A Restaurant and Bar, now open at the Le Baron Hotel in downtown. If you don't, it might be hard to get past the atmosphere and get to the food. The Le Baron's dining room remains what it was designed to be -- a place for tired travelers to eat cold cereal, Danishes and scrambled eggs from a hot plate before heading off to the day's business -- and it's going to be a while before it looks much different. So settle into your green vinyl booth and forget about it. Once we started eating, the asymmetry between the food and the space became downright humorous. So think about the sunset, the ocean and that cocktail with the umbrella in it, relax, and have a good time.
Riley's executive chef John Davila trained in some of Hawaii's finest kitchens and blew into Colorado Springs on a tropical breeze. After only a few weeks at the Le Baron, he became the head chef and was offered the opportunity to write his own ticket. Seizing the moment, Davila created a new menu that combines Pacific Rim and Nuevo Latino elements, showcasing his flair for original flavors and artistic presentation.
A fine example of this is the Chipotle Orange Pork Chop ($13.95). After taking a dip in a honey cumin glaze, the chop hits the grill before being finished with a smooth reduction featuring chipotles (smoked jalapeo peppers), orange juice, orange zest and a touch of cream, which packs a steady, even heat that elevates rather than dominates the other flavors. Another delicious sauce accompanies the Eye -- 10 tender ounces of grilled rib-eye steak ($14.95). Topped with blue cheese crumbles that melt over the hot steak, the homemade black currant and bourbon barbeque sauce sends this rib-eye to the head of the class.
True to its island influences, the seafood offerings are plentiful. An ancho chili crust is seared onto a long block of fresh Hawaiian Ahi ($16.95), which gets wrapped in nori (the black seaweed paper used for sushi rolls), sliced into five medallions, and laid against a mound of garlic mashed potatoes. Mango pure and red pepper coulis add a splash of color. If you have a hankering for shellfish, check out the shrimp and scallops sauted with white wine, cream and a fat pinch of saffron ($13.95).
As good as the entrees are, the appetizers are even better. Davila's Ahi Poke ($9.95), a salad made by many Hawaiian grandmothers on Sunday afternoons, features big chunks of raw, marinated sashimi grade Ahi over an Asian-inspired coleslaw. It proves that you can take the man out of Hawaii but you can't take the Hawaii out of the man. Whatever you do, be sure to order the smoked trout pancakes ($9.95), which I think are the best items on the menu. Your reward is a double stack of perfection. Layers of trout, redolent with smoke and turned pink in the process, separate two, thick potato and caramelized onion pancakes that are crispy on the outside and buttery in the center. The whole affair rests on a bed of sauted leeks and spinach, which are a brilliant, shiny green.
In order for Riley's to reach its potential, other parts of the operation must catch up to Davila's standards. Some of this is already in process, as new linens, flatware and dishes are on the way, and the enthusiastic wait staff is making the jump from coffee shop to fine dining. Other aspects are even more pressing and should be addressed soon. On one night, the small salads that precede the entrees were plagued by old and limp lettuce and vinaigrettes that were not properly stirred, meaning more oil than flavor made it to the table. Bread has also been inconsistent. We had warm fresh pumpernickel on one visit, but stale rolls on another. Although hard bread and mushy lettuce make a less than ideal first impression, these are small details that should be easy to fix.
Fortunately, the food turned out by the kitchen easily overcomes these obstacles. I encourage you to do the same. Davila is a rising star chef, and he offers a bounty of original flavor combinations not found elsewhere in the Springs. If you're looking for something new and exciting, dig into the back of your closet, pull out the aloha wear, and give Riley's a try.
Riley's ... A Restaurant and Bar
314 W. Bijou St.
Dinner: Tuesday through Saturday, 5-9 p.m.
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