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Restaurants & Bars 2

Rioja--thumbs up!

Gypsy Boy | May 1, 200512:47 PM

Rioja Saturday night; it has “replaced” Atlantique on Clark, just south of Foster. Same owners, new concept. Thumbs up. Good food, quick service, very reasonable prices. We’ll definitely return.

Rioja is a Spanish restaurant in a neighborhood that has lots of restaurants but no true competition in that niche. And it’s prices are to be welcomed with open arms. One side of the menu is tapas, one side is entrées. (I’ve posted a link, below, to the menu online.) The entrée side includes three salads and a gazpacho, four “Mediterranean Influenced” pastas (they sounded pretty uniformly Italian to me), three paellas (one chicken and tasso, one seafood, one seafood and andouille), a ribeye and a roast half-chicken. The entrees range from $8 to $14, with the exception of the $19 ribeye.

The Lovely Dining Companion and I split two cold and and two hot tapas. There are twelve cold dishes and twenty hot ones on the menu. Prices range from $2.95(!) to $8.95, although a few of the hot dishes have large portions for roughly double the price. We shared:
1. almond-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon, topped with goat and blue cheese;
2. a “Pisto de La Mancha” that seemed to strongly resemble ratatouille, with goat cheese;
3. Salmon “a La Parilla,” grilled with roasted red and yellow pepper sauces; and
4. roast pork tenderloin with sauteed green apples, amontillado fig sauce, and manchego mashed potatos.
Without going into great detail, I will say that while each had flaws, both the LDC and I enjoyed all four choices. The salmon should be singled out because it was a very nicely (and unusually) seasoned piece of fish…black pepper?...perfectly cooked and beautifully presented. A wonderful dish. So, too, in fairness, the tenderloin, although I missed the manchego in the potatos. There are more than enough choices to please most palates and we left many unchosen for our return.

The interior, I should pause to note, is largely unchanged. Our server explained that the owners were unhappy with weeknight business and, having lowered prices as far as feasible, decided to take another tack. They wanted to draw the neighborhood in more often and aim to do so with Rioja by changing the concept and the price point. They have been open a week and business was very good Saturday night. Not completely full by our 7:45 depature, but about 90-95%. They don’t take reservations for groups of fewer than five (this seems to be the new trend—which I personally find disconcerting; I will happily give you my credit card number if you promise me a table). On arrival at 6:45, there was a very brief wait while they cleared the last remaining two-top for us, but the 15-minute wait I had been told about on the phone either suddenly evaporated or was a marketing ploy of some bizarre sort.

The place has been painted and the art changed; the Spanish music is good (although a little bit loud for our tastes). Upon being seated, we were immediately served a whole roast head of garlic and two kinds of bread. The bread, as they say, not so much. The garlic, however, very good. There is a wine list but I wanted sherry with my tapas. Big mistake—and something an aspiring Spanish restaurant should be embarrassed by: they have three sherries in the house and two of them are dessert sherries. The remaining bottle was an amontillado and so I was forced into choosing it. Fair at best. (Pastrana, $4 for a glass). I find it odd, to say the least, that a Spanish restaurant offers a reasonably nice selection of Spanish bottles (with a fair number available by the glass) but virtually nothing in the way of sherries. It also disappoints when the waitress not only didn’t know what sherry they had, but could tell me absolutely nothing whatsoever about them. I asked what they had and she came back with maker’s names. Telling me you have wine by Beaulieu, Mondavi, and Heitz doesn’t tell me what I want to order. Truth be told, service was...serviceable, no more. Definitely neither warm nor welcoming. Not off-putting…just not the kind that makes you feel at home or that she wants to be there. Food was presented quickly, if again, more along the lines of drop-it-off-and deliver-the-next-dish.

Dessert: five choices plus two ice creams (almond, pistachio) and three sorbets (mango, coconut, raspberry), from $3.50 to $4.25. (The waitress volunteered that other than new Spanish names, not much had changed in that department. Maybe so, but the desserts were very good.) I had the baby banana sundae with vanilla and chocolate ice cream, caramel sauce and toasted almonds. Intense chocolate ice cream, and LDC’s mango sorbet was likewise excellently flavored. In fairness, I should observe that the portions more or less reflect the prices. That’s not a bad thing, however, either in terms of prices or in terms of the galloping inflation that has hit the portions doled out by restaurants in the past twenty or more years. Dinner ran to $50 including a generous tip, under the circumstances. We certainly did not leave hungry.

We’ll definitely return; the insistently casual dress code makes it hard to resist a ten-minute walk from the house. It’s a neighborhood kind of place now. We hope that our server warms up; her heart wasn’t in it and though she went through the motions, she has lots of room for improvement. Compared to our recent disaster at HotChocolate—-showcasing attitude, outrageous prices, and mediocre food—-Rioja doesn’t aim as high, but knows what to do to bring us back.

5101 N. Clark St.


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