The word “riff” implies improvisation and excitement. It instantly brings to mind a memorable guitar solo, and applied to food, the expectation for something inspiring. Unfortunately, in the case of Riffs Urban Fare, there is such a thing as too much riffing.
The menu at Riffs has mouthwatering potential. Everything, including the cocktails, has a twist on classic ingredients, like the house-infused melon & Anaheim pepper Breckenridge vodka in the Jimmy’s Page cocktail or the lemon Tabasco aioli on the grilled shrimp. The effect is intriguing and makes me feel like a kid in a candy store, ready to try everything.
I instantly fall in love with the Bring It On Home cocktail, and the Jimmy’s Page is delightfully balanced. Both have a wonderful mix of tangy citrus and spicy pepper, and the expert masking of the alcohol burn could prove dangerous for the unwary happy hour attendee.
The desserts are a breath of simplicity and, like the drinks, the perfect balance of flavors. A root beer float with local Zuberfizz root beer and sea salt caramel ice cream is delicious and refreshing. The lemon chèvre cheesecake is light, fluffy and creamy and could stand on its own without the syrupy berry topping.
The clear winner of the night is the cornmeal-fried zucchini. The Sriracha ranch dip is an ideal counterpoint, providing a cool and spicy relief from the salty cornmeal coating. It’s reminiscent of my grandma’s fried okra, which is a big compliment.
From here, the dissonance begins.
Slightly too salty, fishy and soft, the grilled avocado is a gorgeous dish of cascading crab pico de gallo and bright avocado that is just a little off. I find the tortilla spoons are unnecessary, adding more visual appeal than flavor.
The watermelon salad arrives with two ruby-red slices of watermelon artistically stacked and topped with crumbled goat cheese, thin strings of red onion, specks of mint and a few large slices of ultra-thin prosciutto. The mix of flavors is wonderful: Fresh, sweet and salty all on one plate. Unfortunately, as any prosciutto-lover knows, cutting with regular utensils without creating a stringy mess is nearly impossible. After a few bites, the watermelon juices, prosciutto sinew and stringy red onion produce a plate that resembles some sort of horrifying carnage that takes a strong stomach to move through. The refreshing flavors mostly make it worth it, but it is not a dish I’d suggest ordering with a date. It’s pretty, but impractical and overdone.
The time between dishes brings to light another aspect that’s just slightly off. Between the décor — brick, industrial piping, fresco painting, tiled cityscape and more — and the music that jumps from Bob Marley to Justin Timberlake, even the atmosphere feels excessive.
Having grown up in Texas, my taste buds have a southern sensibility, making the grilled shrimp with grits a bold choice in a restaurant with little evidence of southern roots. I’m pleasantly surprised by the bright rub on the shrimp, the tanginess of the lemon Tabasco aioli, and the smokiness of the bacon, and only slightly put off by the large, risottoesque grains they pass off as “grits.”
Sadly, Riffs again adds what I find to be an unnecessary ingredient. Several long stems of grilled scallions blanket the plate in an unappealing fashion. If the presentation is bad, the texture is worse. The cooked scallions have turned stringy and soft, creating an ingredient that proves difficult to cut and not worth the effort to eat. The rest of the components taste great indi vidually, yet I find the effect when eaten together overwhelming. There are so many wonderful concepts and bold flavors on the plate that when combined, they fail to harmonize. Like the atmosphere and the watermelon salad, I think this dish is too much.
The grilled pork has the same issues. Again, the individual flavors of the perfectly cooked pork, earthy greens and sweet peach are fabulous, but when combined with the red chile honey become overpowering. Slightly less seasoning on the pork and a lighter hand (or no hand at all) with the cloying sauce and I think the dish would be perfect.
Riffs has great potential but needs to step back and simplify a few things. Most of the individual items are prepared beautifully, but the combination of ingredients frequently misses harmonization and instead produces a cacophony of overwhelming flavors. The melody of most of the dishes is appealing, but the riff falls short of a standing ovation.
Riffs Urban Fare is located at 1115 Pearl St., Boulder. Call 303-440-6699.