Looking at the 225 reviews Rioja has accrued on Yelp I realize that reviewing it is almost too obvious, something akin to reviewing air: yeah, we love it. After 230 reviews they still have a 4.5 star rating, which is pretty magical. That’s like a basketball player making 90% of the shots he attempts. I would expect any other establishment to be dragged down by the weight of the average; occasional mishaps are bound to occur. In fact, mishaps occurred during my visit, but were handled so deftly by the waiter that I have no doubt of the validity of their 4.5 glistening stars. Set them on the ground and build another restaurant on them if you like, those stars are rock solid.
I took Keri to Rioja for our anniversary with the intent to just enjoy my meal and not say a single critical word about it. Critiquing food and enjoying it are considered mutually exclusive by some, but Keri let me indulge and even participated in the conversation. We started by ordering the artichoke tortelloni. My web browser tells me that’s not even a word, but my taste buds know otherwise. Tortelloni are just tortellini but bigger, being a diminutive. Neal, our breviloquent waiter, was friendly and helpful but only for five seconds at a time. Our orders were made in staccato bursts, sometimes at his back. Neal did bring us a “Happy Anniversary” card signed by the staff of the restaurant and two glasses of champagne. We loved the champagne and appreciated the effort, but the card seemed too over the top to be genuine.
We snagged a passing bread boy (is it PC to call him that?) and got bread from his heaping tray: olive baguettes, goat cheese and rosemary biscuits, and thick slices of lavender sourdough. We were told that bread is usually served after the entrees have been ordered. If you order the tortelloni, do not make the mistake of waiting to get bread. The tortelloni were delicious, filled with goat cheese and artichoke mousse, but the broth that they came in was divine. Chervil (that’s like parsley but classier), essence of truffle, and the hint of artichoke made this broth delicate yet complex and absolutely ideal for bread dipping. Keri preferred to dip the sourdough, but I like the crustiness of the olive baguette.
We did have a few problems. The oil candle on our table consistently went out after thirty seconds, thwarting Neal’s every attempt to provide romantic lighting for our meal. In the midst of juggling tables, orders and customers he would stop at our table for a moment to relight our candle like some kind of Sisyphean punishment. The second error came with our drinks. We both ordered Porch Pounders; gin, ginger ale, cucumbers and basil (and maybe mint?) muddled into a delicious blend. The first one was the best, but had a bottle cap in the glass. Neal was scandalized and apologized profusely, then kindly offered us another. The second took so long to arrive that he gave it to us gratis. When he brought us our third drink, this one long delayed as well, and saw that the candle had gone out again, I almost felt bad for him.
For dinner I got the “Colorado Lamb Two Ways,” the two ways being a t-bone steak and a ball of lamb sausage. The t-bone was probably the best lamb I’ve ever had. Succulent, flavorful, tender as anything I ever put in my mouth. The sausage was good, but not exceptional. The dish also happened to have some “caramelized fennel” which was tough and bland. The “crisp couscous pillow” turned out to be a slightly burnt skin filled with dry couscous and bits of unidentifiable vegetable. Keri had the “nori wrapped scallops” and reported that they were quite good but she felt like she could have made herself something just as good at home.
Finally, we ended our meal with the “Meyer lemon sabayon tart.” This was actually a trio of lemon themed desserts: a lemoncello granita, a pine-nut brittle ice cream and a tart with lemon sabayon filling. The granita was light and refreshing but held no surprises for us. The tart was certainly delicious, but again it seemed too familiar. The pine-nut brittle ice cream was a nice twist on a classic. It was like pralines and cream, but with the delicate flavor of pine nuts and rich velvety ice cream. We both thought it was the best of the three, hands down, but loved having a variety of complimentary desserts to sample from. Despite a few slips, we really enjoyed our visit to Rioja and I would certainly come back again.