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Panache Central

Grace, style and attention to detail distinguish Pueblo's Rio Bistro



I'll admit it up front: I have always thought of Pueblo as a bit of a backwater. And I'll apologize right now for my misguided notion. Although I wouldn't want it as a daily commute, the 40-mile drive southward was a small price to pay for a languid evening stroll along the Riverwalk, a window-shopping spree along Union Avenue and a delightful meal at Rio Bistro.

After running a cooking school in La Veta, Colo., sisters Karen Briggs and Sally Greer opened Rio Bistro some months ago in the Union Avenue Historic District, just blocks from the Riverwalk. The building began as a brothel, became first a bar and then a coffee shop, and now is home to Rio Bistro.

The space is small -- 30 diners would be a squeeze -- without feeling cramped. High pressed-tin ceilings help, as does the large mirror behind the dark wood bar. Such vestiges of the building's Victorian past blend seamlessly with more modern touches: the granite-topped bar with a stone bowl of lemons and limes atop it; the shiny metal-topped tables and their high-backed chairs covered with retro mattress-ticking striped fabric; the two large luminous paintings, one of a pear, one of a peach; and the menu of the evening written on one wall painted with chalkboard. This is a neighborhood bistro with panache.

The affordable menu (entrees run from $15.95 to $20.95) is not extensive but changes frequently. Steamed mussels and shrimp cocktail are always among the appetizers; lamb and beef in some preparation are always available entrees. We found the artichoke hearts sauted with oil and served with wide shavings of Parmesan cheese to be the perfect delicate starter, beautifully served on glossy black plates.

Our server asked if we wanted "blue cheese crumbles" with our salad. What we got was far better: thick slabs of Maytag Bleu that perfectly balanced the light, vaguely fruity vinaigrette on a delicate bed of mixed baby greens. It was a portent of good things to come.

There were three meat choices and three fish choices. Tempting as the lamb with rosemary sounded, we opted for the Beer-Marinated Pork Chop and several fish dishes. The pork chop was massive and tenderized by the marinade despite its almost two-inch thickness. A Greek salsa of tomatoes, cucumbers, black olives and feta was a zesty accompaniment. Despite our best efforts, a portion had to go home as leftovers, enough for another meal.

The Broiled Scallops were perfect, moist and sweet, crusty outside, soft inside, lightly flavored with basil. As with all entrees, they came with yellow rice, green beans, carrots and a small piece of red pepper, all chosen for the colors almost as much as for flavor. Delicate garnishes of fresh flowers and sprigs of dill finished the presentation.

The other entrees we sampled, Chilean Sea Bass and Crab Stuffed Orange Roughy, were good but not great. The roughy was a little dry, the sea bass a little underdone, but neither to the point of wanting to send it back. They were just a little disappointing compared to the pork chop and scallops, and forgivable given how busy the kitchen was on our visit.

The next challenge for Karen and Sally will be to extend the style and grace so evident in the preparation and presentation of the food to their staff. Our servers were friendly and helpful and will be tremendous assets with a little more polish. Familiarity with the modest wine list is a must, as is learning how to pour (and knowing that when a woman orders the wine, she and not the guy across the table is the one who should taste). Servers need to clear the plates from one course before bringing the next. Perhaps a fact-finding mission to a fine-dining establishment for the staff would help. All they lack is experience.

And now, two things that seldom attract my attention much less merit a mention: dessert and bathrooms. (Relax, there is no correlation.) Oh sure, you can order bread pudding here or chocolate pate or a good old-fashioned apple crumble, but you'd be missing the point. Under the dessert section of the chalk-wall is the list of Ice Cream Martinis. Read it carefully.

Made with ice cream and a clever selection of liqueurs, and served in a metal martini glass, this is a dessert that won't weigh you down. For those nostalgic for childhood, order a Chocolate Milk Martini or an Orange Creamsicle. Feeling more sophisticated? Try the Nuts and Berries (a masterful blend of Frangelico, Chambord and ice cream with a raspberry garnish), or the Key Lime. These were exquisite. And powerful. Sharing is suggested.

I don't often recommend that one visit a restaurant for the bathroom, but the Ladies Room at Rio Bistro is beautiful. Black walls, black floor (with swirls of white and, no, the ice-cream martini had nothing to do with this), small white-framed mirrors, eclectic artwork with a slight Asian bent -- really a lovely space exhibiting the same attention to detail that makes a place memorable.

I have no doubt the kinks will be worked out, and that I will be back to Rio Bistro to spend another summer evening watching the waning sunlight filter through gauzy front curtains, waiting for wonderful food to come my way.

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