Restaurant years, and especially fine dining restaurant years, are kind of like dog years. In an industry where “what’s hot and what’s not” gets much of the attention, the tried-and-true staples are often left out of the conversation, it makes surviving in an ultra-competitive industry that much more challenging. In other words, making it one decade in the fine dining business is an accomplishment; thriving for nearly two is incredibly rare.
Rioja, the esteemed Larimer Square icon that opened in 2004, has been a part of the Denver dining scene forever. After all, it made history when its Chef and Co-owner Jennifer Jasinski became the first Denverite to win the prestigious James Beard Award for our region’s Best Chef. While other longtime Larimer Square spots have come and gone— RIP The Market and TAG—Rioja has continued to do its elevated Mediterranean thing, rolling and folding more Artichoke Tortellini than the kitchen can probably count.
These days, Jasinski tasks Executive Chef Peter Yong Ho with the cooking. The Korean-born, fine dining-experienced chef is putting his spin on the menu in ways that feel relevant right now. Ho mainly creates European food, but he builds upon Rioja’s tradition of adding thoughtful Asian elements when they enhance a dish, like the green curry drizzle under the huge diver scallop appetizer, and the five-spice jus that makes the tender Liberty Farms Duck Breast that much harder to stop eating.
The menu is still very much classic Rioja, while Jasinski promises staples like the Artichoke Tortellini, Rioja House Salad with dates and gorgonzola, pork belly starter with garbanzo bean purée, and half chicken entrée aren’t going anywhere. The chefs are only looking to enhance the experience, which is why they recently started baking all of the bread in-house and freshened up their lunch service to be lighter and quicker for those with time restraints.
Of course Rioja is almost as well-known for its wines as for its food, so you know you’ll be sipping something good. Sixteen wines are available by the full or half glass, with Spain getting a lot of play on the list.
Chances are, you already know Rioja. It’s been a pioneer on Denver’s fine dining scene for a while now, but with Chef Ho in the kitchen, you might find something new to love about the 18-year-old restaurant.