They call their country "La Furia Rioja," and for residents of Spain, there's nothing more emblematic of their land's red fury than its food and wine culture.
This was revealed to me on a recent visit to Barcelona, where my intimate encounters with spicy tapas and Tempranillos were legendary. I later learned, however, that Rioja, just 400 kilometers away, represents an entirely different expression of that fury.
If Barcelona is the full symphony in a culinary context, then Rioja is the solo. And this idea is manifest in magnificent ways on the "Discover Rioja" menu at Legends Bar and Grill at the Omni Tucson National Resort, 2727 W. Club Drive.
"In Barcelona and many other parts of Spain, the dishes can be complex, with lots of layers of spices and seasonings that all play together," said Jonathan Stutzman, executive chef at the Omni Tucson National Resort. "In the Rioja region it's about simplicity, about composure, where a single bold flavor dominates the dish with supporting flavors gently shining through."
Stutzman's Discover Rioja menu features eight appetizers in the form of small-plate tapas and a Spanish starter staple called pintxos, small bites of food that are served stabbed with toothpicks. They range from beef and bacon meatballs with oregano, green onion and tomato to bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with Manchego cheese. There's even a taste of Rioja meat and cheese board for those wanting to survey a larger landscape of Spanish snacks.
Four entrees are offered on this special menu, including a seared cod with white asparagus and an emulsified garlic and olive oil sauce called "pil pil," bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin with Basque red beans, Tempranillo braised beef and potatoes with chorizo, garlic and paprika.
If there's room for dessert, guests can choose the caramelized flan with orange zest or the Basque cake with vanilla, lemon and dried cherry.
Stutzman spent a weekend with chefs from Spain earlier this year, to capture the culture and craft of Rioja cuisine, and was struck by their principle of simplicity.
"Anytime you dive into something like this you learn something culturally," said Stutzman, "and what I appreciate most about this culture is the simplicity of their food."
The menu also features ten Rioja wines that were hand-picked by Omni Tucson's general manager Jeffrey White following a grand tasting of more than 300 of the region's wines and a five-day tour of Rioja.
"I was looking for both reds and whites that worked well with food and, at the same time, were both fun and different," he said. "We ended up showcasing a nice list, by the glass and bottle, from traditional Rioja reds like Tempranillo with earth and pepper to bright whites with citrus notes like the Viura varietal."
White told me that his time in Rioja, and his deep dive into its wines, gave him a unique appreciation for the people and places of the region.
"Eating, drinking, and meeting with them, submersing yourself in the culture; you can get some of this out of a textbook, but to be there, and to be able to come back and tell that story, that's what it's all about."
The Discover Rioja menu at Legends Bar and Grill is available through the month of December. The dishes and wines are each priced separately, and the menu offers pairing suggestions to maximize the flavor profiles of both. And the view, as White promises, is complimentary.
Contact Matt Russell, whose day job is CEO of Russell Public Communications, at email@example.com. Russell is also the host of "On the Menu Live" that airs 5 to 6 p.m. Saturdays on KQTH 104.1 FM, as well as the host of the Friday Weekend Watch segment on the "Buckmaster Show" on KVOI 1030 AM.