Located in the Union Avenue Historic District, just off the Arkansas Riverwalk, Pueblo's Rio Bistro exudes an almost European charm.
Its roughly 30-seat, white-tableclothed dining room offers four interesting views: the quaint street out the front window; a handsomely carved, long-mirrored bar; a display of local pottery and paintings; and a daily specials menu etched largely in white chalk onto a black back wall.
Like Cañon City's Le Petit Chablis, Rio Bistro capitalizes first on the average new customer fawning over the novelty of the giant wall menu (featuring two apps, one entre and three desserts) before reviewing the focused regular menu.
But the restaurant also disarms through owner (and oft-solo server) Elisabeth Millenet, whose slight Swiss/German accent lends a sincere and authoritative tone to greetings and frequent check-ins. And then there's the food: Rio Bistro's eats match the formal service and fine-dining decor.
Millenet had been Rio Bistro's chef when she bought the establishment four years ago. She made the move to the front of the house, allowing Ben Bedard to take the helm in the kitchen. Millenet's husband Jurgen, a literal ship's captain who serves as weekend bartender (and likes to comp potent shots of homemade Limoncello), highlights the rest of the small crew.
On a dinner visit, we began with an appetizer special mussels in a garlic wine sauce ($9), served with a few toast rounds. All of us garlic fiends, we could have gone for even more garlic flavor in the standard dish, which was otherwise fine. But as evidenced later in our entres, Bedard's style, influenced by classical French training under a Vietnamese chef, leans towards simple fusion without dominant sauces.
Next came a fresh, light potato soup and a round of side salads (choice with entre). The salads sported sweet, dried cranberries on top of greens nearly as fresh as those from my own garden. Bedard later explained that they're local, along with his produce, hand-cut meats, Solar Roast Coffee and breads from Hopscotch Bakery. The quality ingredients justify the pricey dinner menu. (Lunch items don't exceed $9.50.)
My order of the entre special brought a solid New York Strip and three large shrimp ($23), with broccoli raab and potato wedges alongside Bearnaise sauce (egg yolk, butter, tarragon, shallots and light spice). I tasted each item cleanly, as intended, while rationing the Bearnaise highlight for bites of the steak.
My girlfriend's roast duckling ($25.50) arrived with a pleasing, crisp skin and a tasty cherry demi-glace, but we questioned whether the accompanying Oriental vegetables matched the protein; the nuttier, wok-oil taste distracted.
Millenet's imprint remains on a couple of German menu offerings, whose heavier sauces counterbalance Bedard's light steps. My brother's order of the sauerbraten ($19.50), marinated, braised beef served with red cabbage and dry, Swiss-style sptzle (egg pasta), pleased him; according to Millenet, it attracts German regulars.
For dessert, Millenet's traditional apple strudel ($6), masterfully layered and rolled, was doughy, moist and, with vanilla ice cream, simply superb.
Millenet told us it was always her dream to own her own place. That dream realized stands with the best of Pueblo's sparse gourmet offerings.