I once saw a band T-shirt that read, "I've been to three state fairs. I've seen dogs f_cking. But I've never seen anything like this."
That shirt came to mind as I ruminated over my first meal at Rioja, specifically trying to wrap my head around the Colorado lamb loin with saffron goat cheese risotto, fava bean-Bilbao chorizo-almond-Medjool date compote, grilled summer squash and a chai-spiced red wine gastrique ($32).
I've dined in more than 30 countries, at master-chef restaurants in Las Vegas, at Fruition and the Penrose Room, but truly, this single plate might be the most spectacular anything I've eaten anywhere. And you only have a couple weeks before its preparation changes: Chef Jennifer Jasinski always keeps lamb on her menu, but not this dish.
Before dissecting it, let's examine its creator: The organic-and-local-food-minded Jasinski was a finalist this year in the Best Chef Southwest category of the James Beard Foundation Awards, after being named a semifinalist in 2011. She was also Denver Magazine's 2012 Chef of the Year, with honors of this ilk dating back to the American Culinary Federation's 2005 Western Regional Chef of the Year and 2004 Colorado Chef of the Year awards.
Lamb of the gods
Jasinski calls superstar Austrian chef Wolfgang Puck a mentor and role model; for more than a decade, she developed menus and concepts with him, as well as slinging pans in many of his finest kitchens. Post-Puck, the Culinary Institute of America-trained Jasinski dropped into Denver 12 years ago, and opened Rioja with business partner Beth Gruitch in 2004. They acquired Bistro Vendôme in 2006, and Euclid Hall Bar and Kitchen in 2010.
Though she oversees all three eateries, mostly autonomous chefs de cuisine lead the other two; Jasinski always commands Rioja's kitchen. "I'm just trying to make the restaurants I have better, and make sure they're at the top of their game," she says. "I think that food is really in a revolution right now, and I want to make sure I don't get left behind."
The lamb suggests that being left behind should be the last of her worries. Its preparation is essentially Spanish-style, given the saffron, risotto and Bilbao-style chorizo. For the compote, Jasinski juliennes and caramelizes the chorizo, adding dates for a sweet-salty contrast. Slivered almonds deliver crunch, the fava beans starch, lemon zest a citrus edge. And, she says, "parsley and really good extra virgin olive oil keep it bright."
The banana-yellow risotto dominates the plate's base layer, with yellow and green summer squash amplifying the color. Tender pink lamb strips hold the central focus, with the subtle, chai gastrique (caramelized sugar de-glazed with vinegar, as a sauce enhancer) drizzled generously around into sticky, sweet red veins that unite all the flavors under one badass banner.
Presentation-wise, it's actually the least pretty dish of our meal: a little mushy, runny, tangled and chaotic, as if it exists as an experiment in flavor alone. A bite that incorporates every element pulls meatiness, creaminess and a mature sweetness with the citric and salty accents — an amazing, full-spectrum taste experience.
Food for thought
Other dishes we tried didn't match that fullness, but were interesting and delightful in their own ways. A pasta "carbonara" ($19.50) is basically a deconstructed tribute to the Italian pasta, "because I like taking the classics apart and seeing if I can put them back in a way that makes people think about it," says Jasinski.
This pasta can't be twirled on a fork, and in fact looks more like something that would come over an Asian food counter. A large cannelloni tube, halved with a sharp-angled cut and stood upright, is stuffed with a chicken-bacon mousseline (a mousse-like purée) and served with a sunny-side-up egg, a Parmesan-pea nage (a thin broth) and a bacon-parmesan tuile (a thin wafer). Though your proud Italian grandfather would probably throw his shoe at it as sacrilege, if he actually tried it, he'd be transported to the essence of the original. "All the flavors are there, they're just put together in a whimsical fashion," says Jasinski.
Whimsical — yeah, like cheesecake as an appetizer ($9.50): an awesome savory ricotta-herb blend with a sourdough pine-nut crust. Hawaiian blue prawns ($28) keep their heads on with a Japanese-inspired cold noodle salad in a dashi-based uni sauce. And duck from Liberty Farms (used at Thomas Keller's The French Laundry) is an orange-forward gourmet spin ($29) on classic Peking duck recipes.
Even house pastry chef Eric Dale's menu requires verbose descriptions of various classic desserts ($8), from lavish fig-and-goat-cheese-stuffed beignets to a tri-component chocolate Napoleon and a pineapple-coconut baked Alaska whose meringue is lit afire by servers.
Though Rioja's many accolades already speak for it, there's that something else that must be communicated directly through eating the food, like that perfect, surprising fusion with the lamb that's nearly beyond language for culinary reverence. One just chews, overwhelmed, and ponders ... "I've never tasted anything like this."