Thursday, April 9, 1998
They call the menu at Rio Grill 'regional American with a Southwest flair.' That's the problem with trying to sum things up: while it might be accurate, it's sometimes not adequate. This is a menu that promises mouth-watering enticement like a Harlequin novel vows to produce bodice-ripping excitement. The difference is, Rio's menu delivers on its promise.
Executive chef for the last three years, Kurt DeGuzman was a regular customer long before he joined the Rio team. "I used to order the house-smoked chicken every time I came in." Rubbed with an annatto cure and served with a smoked chile butter, with baby artichokes and red potatoes, it's a flavor combo with staying power. "I couldn't get enough of it, even after I started working here," he admits.
That's the way it is with a lot of Rio's loyal crowd of regulars. "I see some of the same people in the restaurant, seven days a week, who like to find the same things all the time, the menu standards," says DeGuzman. "So, I'll change the garnishes to reflect the seasons. One of the house favorites is a center-cut pork chop with grilled marinated mushrooms and blue-cheese-roasted garlic butter. We're getting ready to change the menu now, and that will become a cinnamon-lemon brined, double-cut pork chop that I'll do with bourbon red-eye gravy."
Another case in point is the perennially popular, fire-roasted Castroville artichoke. "We've always had them on the menu, even though this hasn't been a great year for artichokes," he continues. "We sell about a thousand of them a month and Pezzini Farms guarantees the quality, so we've kept them on. Even when they shot up to $60 a case!"
But diversity is also a draw here, for people who don't mind a little adventure. "The duck has become a signature dish," DeGuzman elaborates. "It's brined in salt, sugar and spices and then slow-smoked. Together with a sun-dried cherry and chipotle reduction, it's incredible! Anybody who likes duck will love this dish."
Flavor opportunities continue to abound in the category of crusted items--calf liver is crusted with almonds and bread crumbs, and salmon is coated with pumpkin seeds before being set to sizzle in a hot pan. Interesting vinaigrettes--roasted pepper and tomato, Maytag blue cheese--customize dishes like the warm goat cheese with grilled eggplant, and baby spinach salad, respectively. "It's kind of unusual, too," DeGuzman adds, "that most people aren't that crazy about curry. But our curry vinaigrette that goes over our house salad of baby greens and glazed walnuts always outsells the Caesar."
For DeGuzman, good food has always been a compelling enticement. "I started as a dishwasher when I was 15, and worked my way up. When you see the chef getting to eat whatever he wants, and not have to stay to clean up, it's pretty easy to figure out where you want to be!" he laughs. After getting through culinary school and developing his career at places like Tourelle in Lafayette, and the Beach Club in Pebble Beach, DeGuzman is pleased to be in his sixth year at Rio Grill, part of a well-tenured staff.
"There are guys that have been here nine and 10 years," De Guzman explains. "It's pretty unusual for this business. We have an extremely knowledgeable and dedicated staff from the top down, and we set goals and go after them. We all have a lot of pride in what we do, and in being able to live here. This is our home. It's our 15th year here, at this restaurant. And that really says something."