Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Dish of the Week: Pane Bianco (& much more) at Udi’s Pizza Café Bar on Colfax

Since the Director’s place of employ is in the Lowenstein Cultureplex, I end up in those parts a lot. So I have to confess to some disappointment upon hearing the news that a branch of Udi’s would replace Encore on Colfax; a passable sandwich shop does not a twinkly, cozy hangout make.

But a full-service, contemporary Mediterranean-American restaurant with a well-stocked bar does a twinkly, cozy hangout make; as it turns out, I like almost everything about this place.

In fact, it’s not even all that distinguishable from its predecessor. The long, narrow space looks pretty much the same, & so does the menu—a smart, breezy collection of small plates, flatbreads, salads, sandwiches, & heartier entrees. One thing makes all the difference, however: THIS.

Pane bianco just means “white bread” in Italian, but here, the structured loaf you might expect is not what you get. Rather, the high-risen round is a lot like a giant puff of pizza crust: golden, crunchy, & touched with olive oil on the outside, airy, soft, & chewy on the inside. On 3 visits I couldn’t keep my hands off it until it was gone, & I’m craving it hard all over again just looking at it here, pictured with baba ghanoush—which, however, is a little too pure in eggplant flavor for my tastes; I’m an eggplant fiend (by all its beautiful names: melanzana, aubergine, berenjena, etc.), but it can be sharp on the palate, & in this case I think a little more tahini would soften those bitter edges.

Good thing the bread comes with all the other small-plate selections too, including these terrific Tunisian-roasted carrots:

root-sweet, loaded with smoky cumin, & accompanied by a smear of thick, rich tzatziki—which is also offered separately, doused in olive oil & sprinkled with za’atar. The word “intense” doesn’t usually apply to yogurt, but it sure works here.

Some of the sandwiches also feature pane bianco, including this French dip I got to go—which is great, because why shouldn’t tender, thin-sliced roast beef & aioli be the icing on the cake of killer dough? I didn’t even mind that they forgot the side of jus—for which I mistook the container of orange-balsamic vinaigrette meant to accompany my salad. Look, I’ll dip anything in anything, so what do I care. (Ever had sushi with hummus? Primo.)

In the above light, you’d think the pizza would be equally smashing. Not quite. The crust is certainly all that, as is the zingy fresh tomato sauce—& those are the most important parts, to be sure. But the toppings still need some refinement. Take the vegan kale pizza, which sounded intriguing but proved out of whack: it was basically just a pile of nearly raw kale, plus maybe two slices of mushroom, with the bare minimum of advertised breadcrumbs & no detectable note of the garlic or truffle oil it also supposedly included.

Or the version with prosciutto, béchamel, gouda & caramelized onions—sort of; the below pie boasted the right amount of the former 2 ingredients, but not nearly enough of the latter 2. (In the rare bites where I did get the full effect, it was a throbbingly vibrant one.)

The mushroom-sausage pizza with mozzarella & red peppers was, however, ready for its close-up, so clearly the potential’s there.

To take a quick carb break, Udi’s salads aren’t wildly original—you got your Cobb, your Greek, your chicken “Oriental,” etc.—but they’re solid. The combination of frisée, radicchio, poached pear, blue cheese, & slivered almonds in balsamic vinaigrette may not be conceptually fresh, but it’s literally refreshing, crisp, balanced, generous, & fine. You can have similar salads all over town, but I’ll vouch for this one.

Same goes for the beet, goat cheese, hazelnut, & watercress salad. Overplayed times a million, sure. But nicely done nonetheless.

To return to meatier stuff (click below to enlarge): the falafel burger’s a bit dry, but the earthy, nutty, herbal flavor’s delightful, highlighted by the chipotle aioli—& the Jerusalem chicken is superb: juicy, evocatively spiced, comforting in the extreme.

So next time you’re catching a flick at the Sie Film Center, stop by the bar—I’ll probably be there, face down in a bread pocket.

Udi's Pizza Café Bar on Colfax on Urbanspoon

The Med & The Middle Ground

When I headed up to Boulder recently to meet a friend for lunch at The Med, I realized it had been 14 years since my last meal there. How could it not have changed? In that time I’ve moved to Boston for a decade & come back; implemented & discarded countless schemes for writerly success; fallen in & out of everlasting love at least thrice (to be clear, the Director’s the charm); traveled all over Italy & seen Chile, Egypt, Spain & the Czech Republic, among others, along the way; etc. Surely this Walnut Street fixture has undergone a few transformations of its own—but aside from the expansion into a side room off the patio, damned if I can put my finger on them.

It’s still sprawling & vibrant, all wrought-iron & majolica accents & hues of sun-warmed sand & sea. It’s still bustling with Boulderites (read: beautiful people whose taste in dress suggests what my friend called outdoors Asperger’s). And it’s still, after all these years, pretty good—no better, no worse. At least that was my impression based on a number of tapas, The Med’s stock-in-trade at least a couple of years before Spain’s culinary signature began to trend nationwide.

Clockwise from top left: champiñones al ajillo (mushrooms in garlic sauce); trio of Thai curry, black bean–cilantro, & red pepper–harissa hummuses? hummi?; lamb albóndigas (meatballs) in sherried tomato sauce; ajo (roasted garlic).

As litmus tests for tapas bars go, anything in garlic sauce is telltale (as are croquetas, pan con tomate, patatas bravas, & tortilla española. As the name indicates, The Med isn’t strictly Spanish, but the tapas themselves logically tend to be. For more on that score, check out my reviews of Ondo’s & The 9th Door). The mushrooms passed—simple, juicy, meaty, &, yes, garlicky (though most recipes call only for olive oil, there are a couple that also include butter, & I got the impression these might have a touch). So did the meatballs, the tangy brightness of the chunky sauce complementing the dark funk of the lamb—is there any meat with quite the depth of flavor lamb has? Goat, but that’s about it.

The ice-cream-like scoops of hummus looked suspiciously dry—I like mine, at least the traditional chickpea-tahini blend, to be very creamy & lemony—but only the red pepper flavor leaned that way. The smooth black bean & airy curried kinds, meanwhile, tingled with warm, earthy spice.

Modest, easily won successes all—unlike the roasted garlic dish. Clumsily executed, it consisted of a disproportionate mound of balasmic-roasted onion jam, overwhelming both the buried cloves & the crumbled blue cheese, itself not of the greatest quality. Ditto the stale toasts. Quick to fix, really—less jam; better cheese; toast bread just before serving; serve on a plate rather than in a bowl so that the 3 pungent components can be mixed & matched to the diner’s taste on the spot rather than forcibly clashed. Done & done.

Needless to say, even if The Med hasn’t changed much in 14 years—which is generally to its credit; reliability’s a comfort—the Boulder dining scene certainly has, like that scene in Dr. Seuss where a whole city builds up around the stubborn North-Going Zax & South-Going Zax. Likely in order to claim some of that locavore mojo, The Med’s chef Anthony Hessel (who looks startlingly like the love child of Aaron Eckhart & Jeff Bridges as The Dude) is now hosting a weekly 12-person Chef’s Table—& the sample multicourse menus I’ve seen appeal greatly: think zucchini ribbons with torn basil, toasted pine nuts, tomatoes, breakfast radishes, lemon & olive oil, or whole-wheat pasta with prosciutto, goat cheese, wild arugula, & a poached farm egg. Still, The Med’s bread & butter is its pan-Mediterranean mishmash, from pizza to paella to kabobs—& the sprinkle of sea salt atop that butter is its ever-boisterous happy hour. It doesn’t have to do anything but stay the course to please the easy-breezy legions—& I’m not sure it *can* do anything to lure the farm-to-fork jet set from Frasca & Meadow Lark. Nothing wrong with being the weeknight default, the place to go when you can’t agree on a place to go, the place you leave reasonably satisfied if not especially stimulated.

Mediterranean on Urbanspoon

Dish(es) of the Week 1/24-1/30: A Leisurely Lunch at Rioja

I couldn’t pick just one; the meal as a whole was so satisfying. When it comes to Rioja, Dish of the Week is a Choose Your Own Adventure–type affair. Only there’s no chance that last step’ll be a doozy; all the possible endings are happy.

It starts, of course, with the best bread basket in town: black olive ficelle, lavender country bread, one I’m forgetting—are they orange-fennel rolls?—&, of course, the famed goat cheese biscuits. To catch the flight of water buffalo cheeses, read on…

Whew! In a stroke of luck, you’ve uncovered a sampler of 4 artisanal slices + accoutrements—going clockwise from top, classic, fresh-as-spring-water mozzarella di bufala with a mini-tomato bruschetta & a fried basil leaf; blu di bufala with adorable, warm, chewy housemade Fig Newtons; my fave, the quadro di bufala with olives, which I can’t find anything about online (quadro means “square,” but that’s not helpful), so can only tell you it’s semisoft & buttery, much like taleggio; & casatica di bufala—the creamiest of the bunch, akin to funky robiola, paired with honey & a slice of pear. To go for the gold, proceed to the saffron-manchego risotto…

Jackpot! This current menu standout plays on the deceptive elegance of risotto—which is, after all, just Italian-style cheesy rice—with a chiffonade of bitter-edged fresh spinach & radicchio, a ring of rich citrus jus & a crown jewel of Medjool date stuffed with a pesto-like mixture of pistachios & pine nuts. I wouldn’t have said no to one more of those, the better to chop up & fold fully into the rice, since the bold contrasts are where the dish is at. Or would you rather run with a roll-up?…

It’s called a roulade, but it’s basically a wrap of grilled flatbread filled with housemade hummus, feta, spinach, tomatoes, arugula, & marinated artichokes with lemon-basil vinaigrette. Simple, straightforward by Rioja standards, & refreshing. Still, the most thrilling adventures don’t end on sandwiches, even with vegetable chips. They end with…

Bingo! Rockin’ pastry chef Eric Dale’s exquisite Whopper torte, a hemisphere of chocolate flan & caramel mousse balanced atop a shortbread crust, topped with malted anglaise & speckled with malted milk balls. Velvety here, crunchy there, a bang to go out on all around.

¡Andale, Andale! Rioja Rioja Wine Dinner, 11/30

You’re not seeing double. Rioja’s hosting a Rioja wine dinner, & my guess is it’s not gonna suck even a little bit. My other guess is reservations for the $95 5-course event will go quick, so get on it by calling 303.820.2282.

1
Lobster, apple, & fennel vol-au-vent with apple velouté, lobster reduction, microfennel
Muga Rosado

2
Quince ravioli with pear & pinenut compote, herb salad
Muga Blanco

3
Confit of duck leg & roasted delicata squash stuffed with matsutake risotto, dried cherry–Tempranillo sauce
2008 Palacios Remondo La Vendimia Rioja

4
Sausage-stuffed, prosciutto-wrapped venison loin with chestnuts & black mission figs, caramelized onion–wine reduction
2007 Palacios Remondo La Montessa Rioja

5
Date-almond Newton with red wine–poached pear & white chocolate–pear ice cream
2007 Jorge Ordonez Seleccion Especial Moscatel, Malaga

B’stella-Based Bliss at Palais Casablanca & the Gorging Global QOTW: Tell Me Your Table Travels!

No, B’stella was not the 4th member of Salt ‘n’ Pepa. It’s a delicious Moroccan pastry you can read all about, along with the wonders that are tagine & the below-pictured bissara, over at Denver Mag’s The Mouthful in this week’s Gorging Global featuring Palais Casablanca.

PCbissara
This week’s question, courtesy of our most recent QOTW winner, Mantonat, is “What was your most memorable ‘we’re not in Kansas anymore’ dining experience?”

I’m all eyes, but remember, you’ve gotta post your answer over there, not here, or on Facebook, or on Twitter, or in your diary, for it to count. I’m rooting for ya!

Greeks Gone Wild Gone Reasonable

I was obviously pretty sure back in May, before it debuted, that Greeks Gone Wild would mean nothing to me beyond an opportunity to make merciless fun of a terrible name. The implicit cross between Dionysiac cultic orgies & coed porn seemed a totally stupid one for a nondescript gyros-&-wings joint on DU’s campus corner to bear.

Since its opening, that post has received a surprising number of hits, suggesting that a lot of locals actually do want to know what the place has to offer. Either that or they’re looking for hot girl-on-girl-on-rotisserie action. In any case, I figured it was my responsibility to at least interrupt my stream of mockery with a good-faith wade through the menu.

I still say the name bites; I still say this is not the kind of place that will ever appear on my radar unless I’m right on its doorstep & struck for the 1st time in 20 years by a craving for fast food (hence the categorization under Eateries I Just Can’t Get Worked Up About). But I will say that, as hyphenated-American take-out grubberies go, it doesn’t suck, at least not flat out. Really.

While I wouldn’t recommend eating in if you’re over 25—it’s bright, it’s plastic, it’s blaring & filled with people under 25—I would actually recommend the wings.

GGWwings

No boneless or breaded bastards, they were truly fried right, crackly on the outside & extra-juicy within, & coated but not buried in a medium, well-balanced buffalo sauce—not too peppery, not too vinegary, not too buttery. (There are also mild, hot, Greek & 1 or 2 other options.)

I’m also surprising myself  by recommending the dip platter with pita.

GGWdips

The bread was unexpectedly fresh-grilled, & perhaps even brushed with a little butter? And the tzatziki had great texture—thick & creamy—though a little more garlic would’ve made it even better. You can skip the rest; come to think of it, I suppose you can skip the whole thing & simply order sides of pita & tzatziki. I was impressed just to see htipiti—a lesser-known roasted red pepper–feta spread—& pleased it had a peppery kick, but it also had a salty kick, too hard. Meanwhile nothing about the thin hummus impressed, the flavor being all chickpea, not a whit of tahini, garlic, lemon, or even olive oil.

As for the souvlaki & gyro plates—

GGWgyros GGWsouvlaki

They were fine. Not great, the meat perhaps a little underseasoned, but moist. Fine. The Greek dressing a little underpowering, but the salad fine. Adequate. Fine. The best part was still this,

GGWpita

but, you know, overall, fine! Can’t complain. Let’s not go wild ourselves & word it any more effusively than that.

Greeks Gone Wild on Urbanspoon

¡Otoño en Rioja es muy rico! Duh.

So as I just said, there are circumstances under which I get invited to events I wouldn’t miss unless I was fairly sure I had leprosy & my sores were on fire. Last week, not even a mild case of food poisoning could keep me from a dinner showcasing the new fall menu at Rioja. Until, that is, it did; after 5 of 8 tastings, my tummy just pooped out on me (not literally at the table or anything, thankfully) & I had to admit that for once I was proving useless as a guinea pig, go home & curl up, whimpering, in the dark, where I stayed for 3 days.

But those 1st 5 mini-courses served as sterling (or “burnished”? that sounds more autumnal) reminders, not that I needed them, of just how hard Rioja rocks.

And by the way, if you’re thinking, well, you were a guest at a press dinner, you *can’t* be publicly critical under those conditions—well, right you are, by & large. Thus I only write about press dinners that truly impress. Should they fail to, I return on my own dime & do a double-check or 2 before sounding notes of disappointment/warning, here or elsewhere. Fair is fair, eh?

In the case of Jen Jasinski, however—who, by the way, is coming out with The Perfect Bite, her 1st cookbook, soon!—I imagine my saying the woman can do virtually no wrong in the kitchen is about as obvious & uncontroversial as statements about the Denver dining scene get.

1. Seared sea scallop with fennel-parsley compote, chamomile buerre blanc & a hazelnut-phyllo napoleon layered with carrot & parsnip puree

Riojascallop
In trying to highlight the sweetness of sea scallops via contrasts, from charcuterie to root vegetables, many a cook seems to forget that they’re still delicate little creatures, to be treated gingerly. Jasinski doesn’t, as this balancing act of softly earthy flavors attests. Granted, there isn’t much you couldn’t slather that compote across—pork loin, roast salmon, your toes. My toes.

2. Warm brussels sprout & roasted delicata squash salad with pancetta-apple vinaigrette & pistachio pistou

Riojabrussels
Combining crisped, brunoise-diced pancetta & half-inch cubes of apple, that vinaigrette made a splash in every sense, bringing the pistachio-studded sprouts to life. They’re sleepy little veggies by their lonesome, but find a way to wake ‘em up & they’ll keep on moving & shaking in your mouth & down your gullet. Knocking sprouts is so 7th grade.

3. Duo of soups: chestnut with foie gras–topped brioche crostini & spinach velouté with roasted squash wedge & parmesan tuile

Riojasoupduo
My fave of the 5—both so rich in texture, yet so pure & clear in flavor. Unlike its predecessors, the triumph of this dish inhered not in the combination of elements but in their separation: when I go back & order these soups—& I intend to ASAP—I’ll eat them very carefully, taking 1 spoonful of the soup, savoring, swallowing, then 1 bite of the garnish, savoring, swallowing, & so on.

4. Tortelli with quince mascarpone, pine nut brown butter, juniper gastrique & organic arugula

Riojaquincepasta
Silken case, fluffed-up filling—the exemplar of pillowy pasta. While the gastrique lent a little zing, I’m not sure the dish needed zing—comforting mildness & tenderness was where it was at for me.

Then again, that comment may say more about where I was at at that moment—namely fading fast. Which is why, of

5. Salmon 2 ways: grilled with apple-vanilla puree & pomegranate-cured with celery root–crème fraîche slaw,

Riojasalmonduo

I could barely get past the soothing (yet vibrant) applesauce. Of course the fish was perfect, moist & near rare at the center, & the roulade, from 1 bite, seemed a nifty simultaneous play on the classic deli lox platter & sake maki.

But no matter; as I said, I’ll be back soon enough for the courses I missed, namely duck breast over saffron-Manchego risotto with pistachios-&-pine nut–stuffed Medjools & a saffron-almond cracker (hell, as I reread that description, I’d just as soon skip the duck to make room for more risotto, dates & crackers); braised beef shortrib with gorgonzola-creamed farro & candied walnuts in a sherry reduction; & hazelnut tortamisu (although the angel food cake with not only strawberry-cava consommé but also strawberry–rooibos tea sorbet & strawberry-almond-basil salad that’s on the current menu sounds even dreamier to me).

Oh, & an order of the famous pork belly. Never can pass that up.

Oh, & an order of the housemade mozzarella. Never can pass that up either.

Oh, &…

Rioja on Urbanspoon

My New Favorite Toy: Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill’s pickled eggplant

Oops, I misspoke. My new favorite toy is the kitten the Director brought home to me as a surprise gift last week, Myshkin, named after a turtle I once had for a month, about 1 week of which he was dead before I realized it. Turtles aren’t so lively to begin with that I couldn’t exonerate myself of neglect in no time, but still, it’s nice to be able to honor his vague memory by naming this little guy—

Photo

& by little I mean he weighs less than, say, 50_mile_offer

after him (who was in turn, of course, named for the heartbreaker of a hero in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, which I so adored because no one gets at the awkwardness of truth like Dostoevsky, e.g., “Nor is there any embarrassment in the fact that we’re ridiculous, isn’t it true?…To achieve perfection, one must first begin by not understanding many things!”),

But my new second-favorite toy, coming as no less of a surprise to me,

is this. Geggplant3

It’s not the what that’s unexpected—obviously I’m a big fat fan of pickled eggplant & all its parts (see, just e.g., herehere & here)—but the where: a local falafel franchise affiliated with Panera Bread & thus emitting the foulest stench of corporate blandness.

So how come the food itself doesn’t stink? I dunno, because I’m on my way to perfection. I can only tell you that the cherry-tomato lookalikes above lent all the fruity meatiness of the eggplants they actually are—I’m guessing

of the Thai variety, Thaieggplant

like the ones I got from Sunflower recently, based on their size—to a moderately sour brine presumably containing red wine vinegar & sugar as well as salt. Really, they were as much like

Umeboshi1_l umeboshi as anything.

On that note, time to go play with my toys.

Olivéa in a Nutshell: a little green, but sure to ripen quick!

In a nutshell, Olivéa’s parts don’t quite fit together—yet. The space, though lovely in its warm grays & curvilinear ways, nonetheless strikes me as a bit too sleek, the service too self-consciously suave, for comfort, at least the sort of comfort that the intimate Mediterranean menu—with its slight emphasis (not exclusive, but palpable) on shared nibbles (charcuterie, flatbreads) comprised of relatively humble, hearty ingredients—seems to call for. I wanted the vibe to sprawl a little more, you know? For sunlight to slant in & glasses to clink & laughter to echo a little more.

Admittedly, it’s a tad counterintuitive to insist that the place is too smooth too soon for its own good. After all, would I rather the kinks glared? Besides, as I just implied, if the repertoire leans toward the rustic, it’s not without its elegant elements. Take the blood-orange salad & the bay scallop crudo.

Oliveabloodorangesalad Oliveascallops

The former—just the sort of thing I usually shrug as too spa-by-the-sea—turned out to be terrific, bordering on Moroccan with green olives, pistachios, I think, & a vinaigrette sparkling with cayenne, along with cool shaved fennel & red onion.  The latter, lightly dressed to offset their almost flavorlike fresh-fleshiness, were exquisite enough that my pal K & I polished them off sans the assistance of the accompanying scoops—olive oil–tinged, black pepper–spiked & sesame seed–sprinkled crisps that we munched up only afterward.

Were the water crackers that came with the olives that in turn came with our wine housemade too? They seemed so.

Oliveaolives

But actually, that was the least of the questions I had about the freebie. More pressing were Really? Free or not, four olives for two people? & Huh? Am I supposed to balance the olives atop the crackers? Or did someone forget to finish the tapenade? 

Meanwhile, the biggest of the questions I had all night was Hey, can we talk about the brandade? In private?

Oliveabrandade

I like my salt cod spread like I like my hummus—creamy, with lots of olive oil. While the smack of the morue (or baccalà, or bacalao, or what say you) is of course key, it’s the other ingredients (including, along with the oil, milk & sometimes garlic, potatoes &/or lemon juice) that make brandade brandade; otherwise it’s just fish mush. If this wasn’t quite that, it certainly lacked panache, oomph.

More than compensatory, however, was the smoked trout with fregola & almonds.

Oliveatrout

That there was barely a trace of the advertised mint pesto mattered but a whit in the scheme of trout smoked beautifully—lightly enough to maintain moisture—& the Sardinian semolina pasta that looks like fat couscous but tastes like melted pearls.

As for the flatbread with lamb sausage, roasted eggplant & feta,

Oliveaflatbread

the best thing about it was that touch of sauce with a caponataesque sweet-sour tang; the 2nd best thing was the cushy-crispy crust. And since crust & sauce are pizzalike objects’ bread & butter, I didn’t dwell on toppings that, oddly, weren’t much more than lumpy—somehow the feta didn’t make its salty mark nor the sausage its spicy one—beyond the fact that they made for a bit of a conundrum, since it’s not as though they weren’t in generous supply. Then again, equally perplexing  is how I ended up with the dish in the first place, since the two other flatbreads on the menu—1 with chickpea puree & olives, the other with sliced potato & onions—actually sounded more interesting.

Speaking of not sounding interesting, I hereby pronounce roasted cauliflower gratinée as the new beet salad—way too everywhere all the time. But, while I agreed with K it was a little underbrowned, its sprinkling of capers & herbs lent enough of a nice little twist that I’d still give it the old thumb up.

Oliveacauli

Ditto Olivéa as a whole. Time will tell whether what the other thumb does.

Olivéa on Urbanspoon

The gateway drug of dining deals: Rioja’s Tuesday Sips & Snacks

It sounded too good to be true: 4 sips, 4 snacks, 15 smackers at Jennifer Jasinski’s jewel of a Mediterranean joint? Gleefully sniffing fish, friend Mo (whom you may most recently have met here) & I decided to investigate.

It looked too good to be true on paper: the tasting menu—designed according to the evening’s theme, Wines of Spain—read like the entire lexicon of my 1-track subconscious: “brown butter,” “pork belly,” “parmesan dust,” “this cava is full of butterscotch.”

It looked way too good to be true in reality:

Riojasips

Riojasnax

To give you a fuller taste, from L to R:

Sip/snack 1: NV Gran Gesta Cava with “apple, pineapple & white raisin flavors that are big & smooth”;

warm Goose Point oyster with anchovy aioli, parmesan & parsley puree

Sip/snack 2: 2006 Uriondo “from the Basque region…mingled with wet earth notes”; roasted delicata & spaghetti squash salad with matsutake mushrooms, micro lemon balm, preserved lemon & brown butter vinaigrette

Sip/snack 3: 2005 Castell del Remei Gotium Bru; crispy Kurobuta pork belly with chestnut-apple-vanilla chutney

Sip/snack 4: 2002 Rotllan Torra Reserva; housemade lamb chorizo with poblano–pine nut pesto, Haystack Mountain goat cheese

It all sure as hell tasted too good to be true. Jasinski’s knack for the bold combo of bright & dark, for capturing the—I will not say chiaroscuro I will not say chiaroscuro I will not say…fuck it—chiaroscuro landscape of the Med palate is thrilling. Meaty yet mild as they are, Goose Points proved the perfect tofu-style foil for their sort of desconstructed Caesar dressing of a garnish; the salad (which is also on the current regular menu) juggled the nuttiness of the butter with the butteriness of the spaghetti squash with the sweetness & light of the delicata squash with the clean citrus squeeze of the balm & preserved lemon in 1 direction, then the other (neat trick); while I kind of feel pork belly isn’t pork belly unless it’s a slab—a square inch isn’t space enough for melting fat to be its meltingly fatty self—you know how I feel about chestnuts, & for that matter about the charoset the chutney reminded me of (putting aside, you know, the fact that it accompanied treyf): whee! As for the chorizo, it was the Altoid of sausage balls: curiously strong for its size, a real spice whopper. So maybe it was the Whopper of sausage balls. Whatever, it was dandy as candy, especially coated in a swirl of goat cheese–dotted pesto.

And so it was finally too good to be true, damn it all: Turns out that fishiness we smelled was emanating from our own piranha appetites, which, having tasted blood, were bubbling to the surface of our good intentions looking to gorge. We stayed put for a 3-course feast, thereby defeating the purpose of coming for a deal.

On that note, I ask you, if your appetite were a killer fish & a big fat pig were lying dead in the water above it, would it snatch just 1 little crouton off its abdomen & swim cheerfully away? No, thought not. It would rip that gut to shreds. Thus did Mo order the signature pork belly with fresh garbanzo puree, about which enough has been worshipfully said—& lovingly drawn—to bear merely alluding to rather than repeating.

Riojaporkbelly

Cabbage slaw, poppyseed vinaigrette, bacon aioli & spicy ketchup is an awful lot of condiment for 1 little slider to handle; without much room to maneuver, they kind of all got mixed up in the two-inch-wide-shuffle of this trio of oyster po’boys on brioche. But the shuffle itself was luscious; if no 1 ingredient could quite stand up to another, they sure all rolled around together happily.

Riojapoboys

By contrast, the accompaniments to Mo’s grilled striped bass were sharply distinctive, from the horseradish potato puree & vodka-pickled beets to the fennel slaw & Pernod crème fraîche—ultimately, she felt, overpowering the main ingredient altogether. I didn’t wholly disagree, although the Ashkenazi in me gets so goofy over the combo of creamy potatoes, beets & horseradish that I didn’t miss the taste of bass so much as just wish hard for herring.

Riojafish

Speaking of goofy, since the gourmet geek in me could literally not see past the words “candied lemon gnocchi,” I didn’t notice until after I’d ordered it that it was paired with poached Dungeness crab, zucchini, grape tomatoes & a tarragon herb salad. Much as I admire all those goodies in & of themselves, my crest fell a little in this particular instance; somehow I’d assumed Jasinski would reinforce the candied & gnocchied elements of the dish rather than the lemony ones, yielding something super-rich rather than sprightly.

Which goes to show why they say what they say about the word “assume.” For all I thought I knew & loved about gnocchi, it proved more versatile than I’d given it credit for, adding soft, subtle little puffs of potato beige to the fresh pastel mix of beach & meadow savors.

Riojagnocchi

Like some sort of resolution retard, I’ve been stuffing down more desserts since New Year’s than ever before; in the pineapple upside-down bread pudding was further proof that such idiocy is bliss.

Riojabreadpudding

Topped with a tuile-capped orb of coconut sorbet & set in a splash of rum-ginger sauce, it was unusually, refreshingly light, putting the emphasis on the bread—housemade Hawaiian sweet bread to be precise—rather than the glut of egg & sugar that renders it a pudding, & giving the ring of pineapple plenty of leeway to do its shiny caramelized thing. It was almost more like a snack cake, almost some sort of wholesome thing you’d grab from your childhood kitchen before going out to play.

Riojabread

Of course, preceded by 1 too many snack cakes of another sort—goat cheese biscuits & lavender country bread slathered with butter—we hardly left Rioja pumped & ready to go kick any cans or anything. Buckets were more like it.

And that’s what I’m saying—as that first hit of weed leads to a gruesome heroin-addled end in a trash-strewn alley, so Tuesday Sips & Snacks spells “danger.”

Then again, so does “garden,” with a little rearranging. Does that mean the goodness is true after all?