Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

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?

Mateo-kay!

For all my abiding gastro-Italophilia, I remain at gut-level a modern American in 1 crucial way: For me dinner, not lunch, is the crowning meal. I prefer to eat lightly & work hard(ish) all day so that come evening, I can enter into a drunken &/or gluttonous stupor free of guilt on the 1 hand & on the other any dread of the rude awakening that a post-siesta return to the daily grind would constitute.

That said: when in Rome. Or, in this case, when in Mateo—not an Italian restaurant, mind you, but it is Provençal, which is as close as the French get to being Italian. For that matter, when anyplace that offers a gratin du jour. Yesterday’s contained green beans, whole roasted cloves of garlic, parmesan & cream.

Mateogratin

You know that corny old joke where the girl goes into the soda fountain and asks for like a meat lovers’ triple banana split topped with hot fudge, butterscotch, peanuts & popcorn & extra sausage, flambeed in Jäger, & then when the soda jerk asks “With a cherry on top?” she says “Heavens, no, I’m on a diet”? That nice, light dusting of breadcrumbs on top of Old Smokey there is basically the cherry. Beneath it those green beans just floated peacefully like spa clients in their own immersion tank of peppered & cheese-thickened cream, garlic cloves going by like jet bubbles.

F425fs22

In short, yum. After all, a gratin is rich by definition; I expected no less than a fine mess into which my dining companions & I might plunge with hunks of excellent country bread. They actually came with a black-olive tapenade,

Mateobread

but much as I love olives themselves, in their pulverized form their saltiness somehow always strikes me as excessive. Rarely make the stuff myself without adding sundried tomatoes for balance. Still, if the textbook version is what you’re into (in the buff, bein’ rude, doin’ stuff with the food), this one was it.

As was the signature bouillabaisse, save for the fact that I didn’t really catch the rouille, which traditionally serves as a garnish, particularly atop the croutons, as well as an ingredient in the broth itself. While I missed its extra kick a bit, I could hardly complain about the bubbly crust the toast did boast.

Mateoboullabaisse

Et le soupe was magnifique, with nice, big, firm chunks of lobster meat & monkfish, juicy mussels & clams, fat shrimp & a wonderful broth tinged with saffron that may or may not have been smoked (the menu reads “saffron fumé,” which I initially assumed was a typo, since fumet is the seafood stock with which bouillabaisse is made, but now suspect the spice itself actually is gently fumé. Wow to that. Given how precious hand-picked saffron is, smoking it’s got to be 1 delicate process. Screwing up would be like sneezing on your last gram. Or so I hear).

Enthralled with all that, I didn’t even try my companions’ dishes, but they were awfully jolie, from the baby spinach with gorgonzola dolce, grilled plums (the kitchen was out of the usual peaches) & warm pancetta vinaigrette

Mateosalad

to the Cobb—not a classic rendition, lacking tomato, but of all its ingredients, that’s surely the most dispensable, especially in the face of such fine specimens of chicken, bacon & blue cheese (as well as avocado & chopped egg).

Mateocobb

Still, being a bit Cobbed out lately myself, I more greedily coveted the gnocchi with chanterelles in a velvety-looking mushroom (say it with me now kids) fumet.

Mateognocchi

Good thing it’s on the dinner menu too, as I plan to drag the Director up to Boulder sooner rather than later.

Mateo on Urbanspoon

If David Letterman had gone to Pete’s Central One instead of hosting the Oscars that year,

“Uma, Oprah; Oprah, Uma” would have been “Yummo! Opa! Opa! Yummo!”

There. That little intro constitutes the only way I could think of to get away with using interjections I loathe—at least as uttered by slackmouthed Food Network lackeys and every metroschmo who ever walks into a Greek eatery, respectively—but which are nonetheless objectively appropriate to describe a place I officially adore. Pete’s Central One is one of the sunniest spots in town—decorwise, attitudewise & above all cuisinewise. Just look how bright & breezy:

Petes
Many customers are literally so into Pete’s that they start to spontaneously merge with the surroundings.

Score 1 for me, who suspected the Director would get a kick out of the place despite his insistence that he didn’t like Greek food because he doesn’t like olives, which seemed to me akin to deciding you don’t like rock&roll because you don’t like air guitar: just because it’s an integral part of the whole doesn’t mean it’s an automatically tangible one. Should you choose to ignore olives & air guitar in context, you can.*

I scored points 2 through 1 zillion just by ordering for us both & letting the offhandedly open-hearted staff, F&BOH, do the rest. When I asked the waitress for a single glass of retsina (of which more in a separate post) to pop the Director’s pine-wine-virginal cherry, she fetched a half-glass as a free sample instead.

Then she brought us the likes of these:

Petesdips
dip sampler, clockwise from top: taramosalata, skordalia, tyrokafteri

Petesoctopus
octopus: looks like I’m off the wagon until someone founds a Denver chapter of Cephalopodophiles Anonymous. We admit we are putty in their tentacles.

As a taramoslutta I was looking most mouthwateringly forward to the blend of bread-thickened blend of salmon roe, lemon juice & olive oil that, at its best, has the rare ability to render “salty” & “juicy” somehow synonymous. It turned out to be the sole disappointment of the evening; skimping on the defining ingredient, it lacked the mojo—the roejo—to pack its characteristic punch. I was roebegone. But then I tasted the tyrokafteri, which translates as “burning cheese” (what’s saganaki, then, chopped liver?), & was pleased as the punch I’d been denied by the taramosalata: the whipped-feta spread was alive & kicking thanks to, of all peppers, jalapeno, per our waitress. When in Colorado, I guess.

The skordalia, I fretted, looked a little dry & grainy, but didn’t taste that way: it tasted like everyone’s favorite leftover, cold mashed potatoes—less garlicky perhaps and more lemony than the standard version for a refreshing change.

Knowing this Pete fellow oversees quite the restaurant empire (his picture’s even on the hot-sauce bottle on the table, sort of the equivalent of ancient imperial coin), I’m still willing to bet he hasn’t got the monetary might to fly in daily shipments of fresh octopus. I’ve got no beef with frozen product provided it’s treated with care, however; here, it is, marinated to tenderness in the classic Greek vinaigrette—wine vinegar & olive oil that would strike me as too light in most contexts but always seems just right for a cuisine from a land that sparkles as cleanly as Greece seems to, at least in the usual views of the white-&-blue Aegean, plus lots of oregano.

After a while, though, I wasn’t sure if I was using the pita as a scoop for the stuff I’d ordered or the stuff I’d ordered as an excuse to put the pita to work as a scoop: thick yet light & fluffy, it was more like a warm, well-made pancake than the quasi-crackers supermarkets sell.

Nor was I sure what other, sturdier sort of scoop I could possibly employ to get the rest of the stuff I ordered down; full as I already was, I was thinking maybe gavage tube.

Especially as the entrees began to arrive—1st the avgolemono, a bit starchy but otherwise good, yolky & lemony & chock-full of chicken & rice:

Petessoup

then the garden salad with feta-&-pepper-speckled vinaigrette, as crisp & ripe as could be:

Petessalad

&, finally, my pastisio & the Director’s moussaka, accompanied by wedges of Texas toast—

Petespastisio

Petesmoussaka

both exemplary as showcases for luscious eggplant, al dente pasta, ground beef & tangy tomato sauce; these were genuine casseroles, not piles of béchamelized mush. (Too bad about those prepackaged mixed veggies, the only cut corner in an otherwise lovingly rounded meal.)

We were making ready to waddle out the door when the manager, I think, came over with shots of ouzo on the house—just the Lethean thing to make us forget we’d just force-fed ourselves like masochistic geese. Which means we’ll be back, quacking for more. But at least we won’t get fleeced (or rather plucked): all this plus a bottle of wine came to a measly $70.

*Unless you watch the ¡awesome! Air Guitar Nation, wherein the music really does start to seem secondary to the sweet & freaky mania it begets.

Pete's Central One on Urbanspoon