Riffs Urban Fare opened with a true Boulder pedigree, in covetable real estate next to the Boulder Book Store, with veteran co-proprietors Phil Shull, owner of the former Bookend Café, and John Platt, owner and operator of Q’s Restaurant in the Hotel Boulderado, running the show. Riffs calls itself a foodbar, offering a selection of small plates and a few larger entrée-style, made-to-share dishes. Plates are sized and priced to encourage lots of sampling.
Eager to dig in, we started with the chicken satay and the honey roast pear. The satay appeared with two skewers of chicken served over a bed of chilled soba noodles in a peanut sauce with a cucumber and mint relish. While the menu describes the peanut sauce as spicy, we didn’t discern much heat; but the cucumbers added a lovely hit of freshness. The honey roast pear was my favorite dish of the evening, served with a bed of spinach, crumbled chevre and artful folds of prosciutto, all dressed in a cider reduction. It was an excellent interpretation of a more common spinach and pear salad and I gobbled it down with enthusiasm.
For seconds, my husband ordered the mussel “chowder” (quotes theirs), consisting of steamed mussels, potatoes and leeks in a thyme-scented cream broth. To me, it felt strangely deconstructed. The chowder and the mussels seemed almost like two separate entities, merely plated together. But maybe I was missing the point? My husband said he enjoyed it thoroughly. My crab and piquillo chile fritters, served with saffron aioli and burnt lemon, were a pleasant twist on standard crab cakes: crispy, light and flavorful, though I wished there were more chile flavor.
The short rib ravioli was the other standout of the evening—less for any revelations in the pasta itself but for the brilliant pairing of them with the seared organic greens. The greens provided a sharp, tangy contrast to the heavier meat and pasta and made for a unique and delightfully unexpected dish. The salty, fatty duck confit, served with chunks of roasted sweet potatoes and apples, a bit euphemistically described as hash, played nicely off the good maple syrup with which they were plated.
Finally, we shared the carrot cake and frozen Noosa yogurt with honey for dessert. I appreciated that the cake was a bit closer to a quick bread than a heavy cake, and that the yogurt, in place of a more traditional cream cheese frosting, was not overly sweet. After an indulgent meal of many samplings, it was an excellent way to end on a sweet note without being too heavy, complicated or overpowering.
The service was attentive and thoughtful, and the overall experience at Riffs was genuinely likeable. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that the kitchen is being perhaps too cautious. The menu reads like a thrilling culinary adventure, yet the execution is much safer, much tamer than expected. And while I enjoyed the meal and would recommend it, I do harbor a wistful notion that these good things might have been great.
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