Popular Larimer Square eatery’s winter menu hits another culinary high note
Year after year, season after season, Rioja partner/chef Jennifer Jasinski and her kitchen cohorts put together dishes that remind me of a fine symphony but with tastes rather than sounds that are harmonious yet contrasting, beautiful and creative, and always pulled together from disparate elements ina way where the whole is better than the sum of its parts. The Winter 2013 menu, which I happily sampled last night, is yet another example of culinary creativity assembled by the gifted and amiable chef whom I consider the Belle of Larimer Square.
Price Check: “Delicious Beginnings,” $7.50-$14.50 (plus $16.50 “picnic”); entrees, $18.50-$29; “Chef Jenn’s Handmade Pastas,” $9.50-$12.50 for appetizer size and $18.50-$24.50 for entree size; desserts, $8 (plus one item for $14.50).
Chef de Cuisine Dana Rodriquez flavors French fare with Mexican heart and soul
Of the three Larimer Square restaurants owned by Jennifer Jasinski and Beth Gruitch, Rioja, the flagship, has garnered the most acclaim. Euclid Hall, the newest and most radical, has a bold, meaty menu and a nose-to-tail utilization philosophy that created the most recent buzz. Meanwhile, Bistro Vendôme is the trio’s understated jewel — more pearl than diamond — tucked into a quiet courtyard just off Larimer Square that feels a world away from the Mile High City.
Last week I joined other food writers at a dinner that was something of a coming out party for Dana Rodriguez as Bistro Vendôme’s new chef de cuisine. Born in Chihuahua, Mexico, and educated at the University of Monterey, where she studied engineering and computers, Rodriguez also owned a clothing boutique. She came to Denver to visit family but wanted to stay, which meant another career switch. She applied for a job at Panzano, where Jasinski was then executive chef. She was hired as a dishwasher, a lowly station but the first rung on the restaurant ladder that has started many a career.
Jasinski recognized her talent, work ethic and promise, so Rodriguez transitioned to the kitchen, starting as a prep cook and moving through the stations until she was sous-chef at Panzano, a northern Italian restaurant. Along the way, she tapped into her Mexican roots and also worked at Tamayo at 14th and Larimer — an introduction to the restaurant-loaded street that is now her workday home. When Jasinski and Gruitch established Rioja just up the block eight years ago, they asked Rodriguez to join them as partner and sous-chef.
Now, Rodriquez helms the kitchen across the street at Bistro Vendôme. Since that first cooking job at Panzano, she has immersed herself and honed her skills in the cuisines of northern Italy, Mexico and France. Dinner last week was a procession of dishes that showed a depth of talent, a deft culinary touch in a contemporary French mode and a lot of heart and soul. Below is the meal Rodriguez that presented to showcase her style. I have to add that the duck was one of the best I’ve ever had (and I love duck so often order and/or prepare it).
Price check: At dinner, soups and hors d’oeuvres, $6-$12.50; Plats Pincipaux (main courses), $16-$24; Les Salades, $6-8; desserts $6-$7.
Denver Restaurant Week 2011 ended this evening after a two-week run. Chefs, waitstaff and everyone else at the participating restaurants is presumbly in recuperation mode, but I’m still coasting on the pleasure of dining at the last two restaurants I visited. On Wednesday, my friend and MileHighOnTheCheap.com partner Laura and I rendezvoused at TAG, the Larimer Square eatery that has coined the phrase, “continental social food.” With inspiration from cuisines of the Americas, Asia and Europe, the name is not restricted to one particular continent but implies a high degree of sophistication and cultural cross-fertizilation.
The name reflects owner/chef Troy Atherton Guard’s initials, but there’s a double meaning too becausetag is a game, and there’s also a playfulness both to the decor and the sprightly menu that contrasts colors, textures and flavors in every dish. Decor-wise, there’s a bulldog portrait hung on a brick wall, a toy bulldog over the front entrance, a bulldog with a crown on the menu and perhaps other bulldogs that I didn’t spot. It is hommage to Guard’s bulldog who is named (drum roll), Tag.
Tables in the main part of the restauant wrap around a tall, slim double-glass-sided wine cellar. At Aureole in Las Vegas, “wine angels” ride up and down in bossun’s chairs to retrieve wine from an even taller cellar. At TAG, they do it the old-fashioned way, using a ladder. There’s an open kitchen, minimalist black tables and interesting pendant lamps hanging from the very high ceiling.
Denver Restauarant Week Menu
I had never dined at TAG before, so I can’t relate the special three-course DRW menu to the regular one, but the that might be irregular too because it’s not available on the website. which implies that it often changes. The restaurant week menu reflected a wide range of inspirations as well as Kreativity and Kourage, because one of the first-course options was Kangaroo — not your usual Rocky Mountain fare.
The first course was called Inclination. In addition to our two choices, Petaluma chicken confit empanadas with bruléed avocado, smoked goat cheese and Tag mole was available. I was tempted to try that if only to tast bruléed avocado. We did have:
The second course, called Temptation on the menu, featured two meats and a fish offering. The one we did not order was the center cut Yorkshire pork loin with scallion potato mash, long beans and chile pasilla sauce. We did order:
Dessert was called Seduction on the menu. I would have called it Satisfaction, because satistified describes our feeling after we had cleaned our plates. White chocolate bread pudding with beet raspberry gel, ancho chile-chocolate crumble and crushed hazelnuts was the dessert that neither of us ordered. It appealed to me on many culinary creative levels, but I had several bread puddings in Alaska just last week, so I went for the semi-freddo instead.
For a pre-Valentine splurge, visit Rioja for a dinner based on Jennifer Jasinski’s new cookbook
Jennifer Jasinski is a multi-talent. She is not only an award-winning chef and partner in three popular Larimer Square restaurants (Rioja, Bistro Vendome and Euclid Hall), but she is also a cookbook author. She wrote The Perfect Bite, which came out just a couple of months ago and is 184 beautiful pages of great food photos, recipes, inside secrets and her own tips. She’s preparing a dinner from it on Wednesday, February 2, beginning at 6:00 p.m., at Rioja, the first of the restaurants that she now partners in.
This multi-course feast is pricey ($150 per person), but that does include the gratuity, tax and a copy of The Perfect Bite. Maybe she’ll even find time to autograph it for you. Jasinki’s partner Beth Gruitch is also a wine expert, and she’s picking some of her favorites to pair with each course. I think of this not as just another “dinner” but as a special occasion. How about doing it as a pre-Valentine feast with your honey?
February 2 Cookbook Dinner
• Libation – Pomeginger cocktail (pomegranate purée, house made ginger syrup, vodka, sweet and sour, splash of soda) • Amuse – Vodka orange salmon tartare, crispy fennel-cream cheese pillows, orange gastrique • Soup • Cauliflower-Fuji apple soup, almond-herb salad
• Salad – Roasted beet salad, cucumber-mint vinaigrette, pickled red onion, Haystack Farms Snowdrop cheese
• Risotto – Fennel and Mascarpone lobster risotto
• Fish – Seared tuna, tomato broth, house-made sausage- stuffed calamari and arugula
• Entrée – Braised short ribs, parsnip purée, bacon Brussels sprout “hash”
• Dessert – Duet of Meyer lemon cheesecake and fig beignets with fig port syrup
For reservations, call Rioja at 303-820-2282. The restaurant is at 1431 Larimer Square, Denver.
Upscale seafood chain restaurant soon opening on Larimer Square
Just a few blocks from Oceanaire, the Denver outpost of a small expensive seafood chain, comes Ocean Prime, a newer outpost of another small, expensive seafood chain. In a few days on the prominent corner of 15th and Larimer (which I think of as Larimer Square’s restaurant row) will gleam with an ultra-upscale seafooderia and steakhouse. The executive chef will be Michael Denton, who — the company says has been given a long rein to create the restaurant’s “chef-driven” menu, according to the company. Given the location and visibility, the supper club-inspired bar should be quite the Denver scene. A peek in the window foretells expensive finishes. I envision lots of leggy, long-haired, short-skirted women and cool-looking guys filling the beautiful space.
Ocean Prime is part of the Cameron Mitchell Restaurants LLC, which operates operates 18 restaurants under seven different “concepts,” a restaurant industry term that I simply don’t care for. I don’t want to eat in a concept; I want to eat in a restaurant. But that’s my hot button — clearly not most Americans’. Current Ocean Prime restaurants are open in or near Miami, Orlando, Phoenix, Tampa, Dallas and Columbus, which ironically is also the birthplace of Brio, which I wrote about here just a few days ago. I wonder how and why Columbus has spawned two such opulent chains that often favor locations in upscale shopping malls.
Two beautiful new cookbooks feature recipes from The Fort and Rioja
Many of my favorite cookbooks are those associated with restaurants I love and/or written by chefs whom I admire. Two new books — one out for just a couple of weeks and the other to be published in another couple of weeks — fall into those categories. They are not just beautiful, but more significantly, they show how restaurants of different styles have elevated the local food scene.
Shinin’ Times at the Fort: Stories, Celebrations and Recipes from the Landmark Colorado Restaurant is Holly Arnold Kinney’s new cookbook, family memoir and tribute to Western tradition. It is out, and what a book it is. Its 260 glossy pages are filled with personal memories of growing up right in The Fort (her childhood bedroom is now her office). In addition to personal memories, the book honors the traditions, culture and cuisine of the frontier West with fabulous recipes and the gorgeous images by ace food photographer Lois Ellen Frank.
While Holly is not a chef herself, she spent hear early years in the family restaurant and knew the chefs and cooks who prepared her father’s recipes and introduced some of their own. She shares recipes, both immutable classics and updated dishes that reflect the best of both the past and the present. Preserving The Fort’s traditions and her own heritage, while keeping up-to-date, is a responsbility, a challenge and a joy, all of which Holly has wrapped into this one gorgeous book.
Holly is the rare (perhaps the only) person to have grown up in the second half of the 20th century but rooted in the first half of the 19th century. The restaurant that her parents established in the 1960s was inspired by Bent’s Fort, a fur-trading post along the Santa Fe Trail in southeastern Colorado. Sam Arnold, Holly’s late father, was an indefatiguable researcher who collected some 3,000 cookbooks, plus history books and artifacts from the Old West. After Sam passed away in 2006, she began researching and writing this book, part of her way of honoring her family’s legacy and the legacy preserved at The Fort.
Shinin’ Times at The Fort has only been out for a couple of weeks, but it has (not surprsingly) made a splash. It is one of Colorado Public Radio’s picks for “Holiday Books with a Western Twist,” and this evening at 7:00 p.m, Holly is appearing at the Tattered Cover on Colfax to talk about and sign the book. Click here to read my feature about The Fort and Holly Arnold Kinney in edible Front Range magazine.
When Holly and chefs at The Fort are ready to modify the menu, they always have to balance tradition with innovation. Jennifer Jasinski, chef and partner in Rioja, is under no such constraints. She can let her culinary imagination soar. When the Mediterranean-inspired restaurant opened in 2004, Jasinki’s creativity in the kitchen spurred the culinary revitalization of Larimer Square. This popular area with locals and visitors had tired and by-then uninspired restaurants, but Rioja juiced up the block .
Jasinski’s mentor, Wolfgang Puck, instilled in her the ability to create contemporary spins on traditional dishes by finding new combinations and new presentations. Her interesting and exquisite dishes can be called “perfect bites,” and in fact, the name of her new cookbook is The Perfect Bite.
Visit Denver organized a roving media event last night that included Euclid Hall, the newest of the three Larimer Square restaurants owned by Jasinski and her partner, Beth Gruitch. Chef Jen, who has the ability to flit from one restaurant to another and one task to another without breaking stride, was buzzing in and out of the kitchen, alternately passing out trays of hors d’oeuvres and showing off a first-bound copy of the new book. It should be available on or around December 20. It was my first glimpse at The Perfect Bite, 184 pages with 76 recipes (including her signature tasting menu). And did I mention that this book too is a looker?
No counting calories or fat grams in this indulgent LoDo eatery
The buzz about Euclid Hall Bar & Kitchen has been loud and the reviews over-the-top enthusiastic ever since it opened in August. Jennifer Jasinski and Beth Gruitch, who partner in the the super-successful Rioja and Bistro Vendôme, both on Larimer Square, grabbed the former Martini Ranch (and former a lot of other things) space around the corner on 14th Street. They call Euclid Hall, their third hit eatery, an “American travern,” but its dishes are adventurous, internationally inspired and rich. How do you say umami in American?
It took me three post-opening months to get there, three months when I kept reading and hearing good things. When my husband Ral and I planned to meet our friend Bernie Weichsel, the producer of the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Expo, for dinner in Denver, Euclid Hall was the fist place I thought about. Bernie’s late father, a wholesale butcher in Manhattan, was a purveyor to many of the city’s top restaurants. Bernie grew up appreciating good meat, and in everything I read and heard, Euclid Hall’s meat was praised. Make that, swooned over.
Jasinski and chef de cuisine Jorel Pierce have crafted a menu that revolves around house-made everything: they butcher their own meats and make their own sausage sausages, pickles and even mustards, four of which are magnificent with the signature sausage tasting dish.
We were seated on the second floor of the restaurant between the bar and the big front windows. Solid chairs surround bare tables, set with simple napkins wrapped around heavy flatware. A stubby candle in a Mason jar in the center of the table underscores ambiance but without frou-frou accents. My husband ordered the Lefthand Breweing Co.’s Milk Stout from the impressive big beer list, and I couldn’t resist trying Infinite Monkey Theorem wine on tap. Wine on tap?!?!
The menu is seasonal and clever: sandwiches, sausages, poutine,schnitzel and desserts have their own sections of the menu, but seafood is listed under “Dock,” meats under “Block,” and salads and side dishes under “Roughage and Sides.” As we were studing our options, Chef Pierce emerged from the kitchen and suggested that we try Euclid Hall’s specialties and his favorites. Sure, we agreed.
The first item was Oyster Shells and Shots, Two Ways. Three oysters on the half-shell with a super-spicy bloody Mary granita alternated on the plate with three oyster shooters in a cucumber gin gimlet. We devoured the dish arrived before I had a chance to take a picture. However, click here to see Lori Midson’s shots for Westword.
And now for the rest of the feast.
Sociable Euclid Hall portions all dishes to share, and was I glad! I rarely indulge in food so rich and probably was able to hold my own only because I was recently in training in Germany. Truth be told, I tasted foods I haven’t touched in years. I was glad the chef picked for us, because every single dish, including blood sausage and marrow that I never would have selected on my own, was tasty and immensely satisfying. But don’t just take it from me. My husband and Bernie, far more carnivorous than I, gave Euclid Hall thumbs up too.
Price check: Fresh Hand-Cranked Sausages, $3-$15 for one to three sausages; poutines, $9-$12; Schnitzel, $12.50-$14.50; Dock (seafood), $9.50-$15; sandwiches, $9.50-$10.50; Block (meats and poultry), $5-$16; Roughage & Sides, $2-$12.50; condiments, $1.50-$5; Desserts, $3-$7.50.
Claire Walter's Colorado-oriented but not Colorado-exclusive blog about restaurants, food and wine events, recipes and related news.