In the late 1990s, I worked on west Walnut Street, a stone’s throw from the Pearl Street Mall. For lunch, I’d patronize now-defunct venues like Juanita’s and the New York Deli, and I’d often pick up morning coffee at the old Bookends Café. Like many, I felt a touch of melancholy when I heard that Bookends was closing, but I’ve also learned to accept that businesses invariably come and go on Pearl.
Riffs Urban Fare now occupies the Bookends space, and it’s owned by the same folks who had the Café. Chef duties are handled by John Platt of Q’s Restaurant. Upon entering for lunch, I experienced mild déjà vu, as this self-described “foodbar” had a similar layout to the cafe. I was joined by Louise and Grant, and it seemed appropriate to meet these new friends in this revived venue. Taking in the dark woods and industrial design bits, Louise observed that the space possessed an “urban, New York feel.”
The menu features small plates and larger portions of dishes like short rib ravioli and lobster risotto appropriate for an entrée or sharing. Soups, salads and sandwiches are also on tap, including a Colorado’s Best Beef Burger and a Kentucky Hot Brown, featuring cheese sauce over turkey.
We started with a $4 plate of house-pickled pickles, including wax beans, beets, cucumber and chard stems. Each possessed a pleasing, gentle crispness and delicate seasoning without an overwhelming vinegar flavor; consequently the vegetable flavors were highlighted to positive effect. Grant deemed this dish “a pleasant palate pickup.”
Louise felt the piquant pickles also complemented the $12 crisp duck confit’s richness. Some versions of this preserved poultry are tough and dry. Happily, this wasn’t the case, as the duck had appropriately crisp skin and tender meat. An accompanying hash of al dente roast apple and earthy sweet potato provided a hearty complement to the flavorful bird. Louise, who has a culinary background, found the dish “a perfect introduction to fall, perfectly prepared, moist, yet falling apart.”
On the lighter side, we had a platter of $11 Ahi sashimi, slices of sushi-bar-quality tuna topped with a light salsa of jalapeño, cucumber and hearts of palm. The $4 flash-cooked Brussels sprout leaves with brown butter and hazelnut might have benefited from a crisper texture, and we favored a simple but comforting $5 butter-roasted cauliflower with chevre. Said Grant, “If you’re going to eat cauliflower, this is a good way to go.”
Another entrée-worthy choice is the $8 mussel “chowder” comprised of gold potato, leek, wine and cream. Like the ahi, the mussels were sparkling fresh, with the ideal earlobe texture. The balanced seasonings allowed the subtle shellfish flavor to rise to the top. Less subtle, but still compelling, was an $8 ground lamb kebab possessing equally accomplished spicing of cumin and anise.
We ended with a duo of solidly prepared desserts, each priced at $8. These were an autumnal pumpkin custard with a thin gingersnap, and flourless chocolate cake with coffee ice cream. These weren’t particularly groundbreaking choices, but that’s likely not the point here. Like most of the menu items at Riffs, the emphasis is on unfussy presentations that let the quality of the ingredients and culinary skill take center stage.