I recently spent a few days in Denver and enjoyed two dinners in neighboring restaurants in Larimer Square. (This wasn’t by design; the two I wanted to try just happened to be there.)
First was Osteria Marco, a casual downstairs space with lots of dark wood. The wine I wanted was out of stock so I tried the 2003 Langhe Nebbiolo from Massolino, which turned out to be fine but not exceptional. I ordered some olives to start and they brought out a large and tasty selection. The place touts its house-made cheeses and meats, so I decided to sample several.
Words of warning here: (1) these starter portions are substantial and by the time I had finished three I did not have room left for much more, and (2) the soft cheeses have subtle flavors and it was not such a good idea to knock back a dozen vibrantly-flavored olives beforehand. The cheeses I tried were the Burrata, a mozzarella with a creamy center, and the Capra Ricotta, made from organic goat milk. Both were quite good. I also tried the Ciccioli, braised pulled pork, which I would recommend. All three were served with crusty grilled bread.
I moved on to the shaved lamb salad, which turned out to be larger than expected and tasty, with goat cheese, roasted peppers, and olives. There were some other small plates I wanted to try but I was full and so they will have to wait until another time. No complaints about the service, but as the room filled up it did get noisy.
Second was Rioja, just down the block, and more of a “fine dining” place, though not as Spanish as the name would hint. They do have a good selection of Spanish wines, however, and I ordered a bottle of the 2001 Lealtanza Reserva Rioja, which was quite good. They brought out an amuse-bouche of pureed salsify with a little wedge of Gruyère and a couple of Japanese mushrooms (I think they were Shimejis). They offered an interesting bread selection, including a lavender bread, which was new to me.
I ordered the house made lamb chorizo pizza to start. This was about eight inches round and included roasted poblano pesto, mozzarella and fontina cheeses, and Roma tomatoes. It was delicious, but could have fed two. I continued with the grilled Colorado lamb, a beautifully rubbed and crusted sirloin served over tricolor lentils with a parsley pistou. On the side was a large Haystack Mountain goat cheese ravioli served over braised greens (chard and pea shoots). The lamb was absolutely exquisite.
I finished with the flight of artisan sheep milk cheeses, Feta Valbreso, Berger de Rocastin (brie-like), and Ewephoria gouda. The Feta, marinated in olive oil with a sprig of thyme, was wonderful. Accompaniments were an almond cracker, fennel marmalade, and almonds. A nice presentation. Subsequently they brought out a little beignet and then (with the bill) a sugared mint leaf.
The service was excellent and nicely paced. The room was quiet and relaxed (even with a party of ten nearby). This was one memorable meal. I would return to Rioja in a heartbeat.
All in all, a couple of good dining experiences in Denver, though in retrospect maybe I overdid it on the lamb.