Usually that one query pulls forth an immediate response from my subconscious, and I consider it the deciding factor in how to phrase a review. But occasionally, as in the case of the River House, the reliable little voice in my head becomes schizophrenic. Given the opportunity, would I revisit the River House? Yes. No. Well, maybe. But I doubt it.
On the positive side, the River House, located on the New River in downtown Fort Lauderdale, is one of the prettiest spots around. Originally two private homes owned by Reed and Tom Bryan, brothers who lived there around 1900, the large eatery encompasses both cottages. Reproductions and antique-looking furniture dot the first floor, along with working fireplaces, majestic staircases, and carpeted treads. There are plenty of options for where to dine. You can sit at a wrought iron table on a brick-paved patio. You can lounge in an interior dining room. Or you can overlook the water from an enclosed second-story porch. For those actively seeking a romantic restaurant, the River House might be the quintessential fit.
What's more, the River House is run by a couple of admirable proprietors, Tim Petrillo and Peter Boulukos, who are veterans of Mark Militello's Mark's Las Olas. The pair owns two nearby eateries, the contemporary Himmarshee Bar & Grille and the happy houroriented fish house called Tarpon Bend. They took over the River House in late 1999 from another well-known area restaurateur, Ron Morrison, who had called the place Reed's River House and had in turn acquired it from the Chart House. The triumphs that Petrillo and Boulukos have had with their other restaurants set a precedent diners would expect this one to follow. Its contemporary American menu is tempting, with dishes such as pan-roasted black mussels in rosemary-tomato broth or smoked pork loin with apple-brandy sauce and apricot compote. Indeed, not trying the place would seem almost foolhardy.
But we've seen it time and again: Looks and pedigree don't necessarily combine to make a thoroughbred. Consider some members of the Kennedy clan, for instance. And during a recent visit, despite some moderate successes, the River House pulled up lame.
The first stumble occurred right out of the starting gate, when we never received bread. (When one espies bread plates, one assumes there will be some sort of starch offered.) Could we get some? It was a question we heard other diners asking, too, but one we wished we hadn't voiced as the rolls we were finally served hardened throughout the evening like quick-set cement.
Rounding the second leg of the track came stagger number two. Though our server was sweet and cheerful, she was also inept, which she immediately proved by dropping a dirty fork on my mother's dry-cleanonly skirt. Accidents can happen, sure, but this one was the result of improper training. No one had taught her how to place utensils on a plate before she cleared the table.
A poor training program doesn't come close to excusing the final slip-and-fall, however. The grouper française main course, two hefty fillets encrusted in a golden batter, were spoiled. In fact, the ammonia taste of rotting fish was so evident you could have used them to mop the floor. I am still shocked that these were released from the kitchen when they should have been consigned to the garbage heap. But I'm even more appalled by the lack of communication that seems to indicate the kitchen was never informed why the fish was sent back. The server did the right thing, taking the meal off the table without complaint, removing it from the check, and replacing it with the fish of the day, a blackened snapper that was indeed fresh and delicious. But when the manager herself delivered it, she said, "I'm so sorry you didn't like the grouper." Clearly she hadn't been told that the fish was hardly day-boat quality, which meant the server hadn't really listened to our reasons for returning the meal. I cringe to think how many other diners were served the grouper that evening after we left.
An overwhelming faux pas like this tends to overshadow chef Arthur Jones' culinary accomplishments. These included a main course of stuffed chicken -- a nice juicy breast larded under the skin with wild mushrooms. A dark, red wineinfused sauce and roasted-garlic mashed potatoes made good foils for the poultry, which was flavorful enough to stand up to them. Still, a smattering of unsnapped French beans was more annoying than artful, suggesting the kitchen just didn't have time to remove the thready ends that some diners like me consider unappetizing.
Much of the food also suffered from sitting too long in the kitchen, as evidenced by the dishes that arrived lukewarm or even downright cold, like the oak-grilled sirloin steak. Paired with a wild mushroom ragout and given pungency by Maytag blue cheese "butter," the musky steak could have been wonderful had it been served with any hint of heat. A starter of cornmeal-crusted oysters suffered from the same flaw. Though attractively presented on crisp tortilla chips with a smidgen of lemony tartar sauce on each, the oysters, which surrounded a pleasantly spicy coleslaw, were barely warm. An appetizer of escargots held its residual heat a bit better, because it was presented with a puff-pastry topping that trapped the steam, but an overwhelming flavor of anise ruined the small, dark snails.
The one item that worked without question -- a wedge of iceberg surrounded by dribbles of tangy Roquefort-buttermilk dressing and nuggets of applewood-smoked bacon -- didn't require any cooking. And our desserts of pecan-andchocolate-chip bread pudding with toffee sauce and a huge wedge of chocolate layer cake, given to us on the house to make up for the grouper fiasco, were moist and rich. So what does this say about the kitchen at the River House? Only that the pastry chef and the cooks on the cold side seem to be doing their jobs.
Poor River House. It has such potential. The setting is gorgeous, the staff is well-meaning, and the menu is modern. But if spoiled fish and stale bread are any indication, then the River House seems to be suffering from executive neglect. Not even the valet parkers show up with any great alacrity to take your ticket and retrieve your car. In the end what should have completed Petrillo and Boulukos' triumphant trifecta is hobbling in the background behind the proprietors' other two ventures, a fate that has the restaurant critics in town more than a little thrown.