One of the restaurants we went to while in Denver was a funky downtown place in the Larimer Square area called Rioja. It's named after the famous Rioja wine region of Spain and is a Mediterranean style restaurant with an emphasis on seasonal and local foods.
Rioja was opened in November 2004 by Beth Gruitch-Verucchi and executive chef Jennifer Jasinski (shown at right). Both women had extensive backgrounds in the upscale restaurant industry - Gruitch-Verucchi with the Levy restaurant group; and Jasinski worked with Wolfgang Puck in a number of his restaurants. Gruitch-Verucchi and Jasinski met in the late 90's when both worked at Panzano in Denver (and a place I want to try the next time I go to Denver).
Rioja is situated in an old building near the Lower Downtown area of Denver - or simply known as "Lo-Do" to the residents (see map). The decor is the original brick from a building that has been there since the early 1900's with some casually hip features to make it less pretentious. It's loud in there, though. The wood floor and brick walls make it a big echo chamber so don't think you're going to go have a quiet meal.
As I said, the menu slants toward a Mediterranean style - lots of herbs and fresh veggies - but not only features a number of seafood and pasta dishes, but steaks, pork, lamb and chicken grown in Colorado. I had the grilled rib-eye - a nice piece of meat marinated in herbs and cracked black pepper. Many went with the duck, cooked two ways - a seared breast and a baked breast stuffed with wild mushrooms, asparagus, basil, pearl onions and teardrop tomatoes.
A couple others close to me went with the smoked pork tenderloin. It was served on a bed of risotto and had a mushroom and pancetta compote with it. It looked damn good.
Most of the wines on the menu came from Spain. I've been into Spanish wines since my daughter brought back a couple great Rioja's from her first trip to Spain a few years ago. They had a 2001 Marques de Riscal Reserva Rioja that I was somewhat familiar with and I suggested that. It was a great suggestion as the wine was superb with our meals. It was full-bodied, had a great flavor to it after it opened up and had a very nice finish. Everyone was pretty impressed with my wine selection!
For dessert, I couldn't say no to the lemon/blueberry brulee - a lemon ricotta brulee with blueberries. Oh man! Was it out of this world! Two of my most favorite flavors on earth - lemons and blueberries - packed into one sinful dessert.
We had a big group - 11 people - for dinner and we had one waitress. But she was ably assisted by a number of other people and the service was absolutely top notch. She did a killer job in taking care of us.
Rioja isn't cheap, but the prices aren't stratospheric, either. The food was great, the service was top notch, the wine selection was very good (they were awarded Wine Spectator's Award of Excellence for 2006 earlier this year), and the ambiance was very upbeat. Rioja is highly recommended if you want a great meal in Denver.