Two mansions that were owned by brothers Reed and Tom Bryan 100 years ago stand side by side on the banks of the New River. There isn't a lovelier patch of land in Fort Lauderdale, no place seemingly so intelligent and gracious, so well-lit and well-planted -- from the brick patios under the stars, the gleaming gazebo, and the covered porches with their wicker chairs to the bar's bright brasses and crystals. A staircase leads up to rooms that open into other rooms. Lights twinkle by the thousands in every tree; reflections play off the water. Inevitably, a young bride hikes up her skirt somewhere on the premises to waltz with her new husband.
The River House Restaurant, at last, has settled in with a sigh and fulfilled its potential. You can feel it -- a fresh sense of expansiveness and confidence after years of ups and downs, taking up and discarding names like a serial divorcée -- Bryan Homes, the Chart House, and Reed's River House. The grand lady ran through an equally long line of restaurateurs, chef/owners, and executives struggling to get her under control. It's been a particularly painful process because we so wanted River House to succeed; there isn't a public building in Fort Lauderdale with as much history and intrinsic beauty demanding to be put to worthy use. The two adjoining mansions, renovated in 2000 by Tim Petrillo and Peter Boulukos, who also own the stellar Himmarshee Bar and Grill, sprawl out over what feels like acres and seat more than 300 diners. River House has the visual dignity of culinary standard-bearers like Commander's Palace in New Orleans. But I think it's even prettier. Sheer size gives the place a feeling of luxurious activity, like a grand hotel or a transatlantic liner. It's all a little bit fantastic.
Part of the restaurant's attraction has always been its complexity and mystery. There are a dozen rooms, if you count the outdoor spaces, each with a distinct character. You can book an intimate dinner with a handful of friends and have one of the smaller spaces, like Jack's, Tom's, or Perry's room upstairs, to yourselves. The bigger dining rooms on the ground floor have grand fireplaces; the outdoor patios benefit from river breezes and swaying trees; a balcony running the length of the second floor takes a long view. If your hostess leads you up the main staircase past the open kitchen visible from the lobby, you'll catch glimpses of parties in progress on all sides -- banquets, weddings, birthdays. How many plates must pass out of that kitchen every night! And what ingenious choreography must it take to get those dishes of escargot and Arctic char, tenderloin and stuffed grouper, still hot, handsomely arranged, undelayed, to the right person at the right table in the right room, up or down the right staircase! It's mind-boggling.
We sat on the upstairs balcony, a long, narrow room like a club car, now glassed in, with a partial view of the water. Settling back with a cold cocktail, we studied Executive Chef Doug Riess' "New American" menu. Riess, who cooked his way through several Mark Militello operations (he spent ten years at Mark's Place), has put together a menu distinctive enough to match its glamorous setting. Broadly speaking, it's American cuisine with echoes of the Bahamas, Louisiana, and the Pacific islands. A full page of specials joins the everyday options, but even the fixed menu changes frequently, presumably to reflect seasonal availability. It's wonderful to see locally raised produce and fish -- organic salads grown in Davie, mangoes, clams, and grouper -- and free-range chickens alongside exotic fish like Australian barramundi and wild game like venison and goose.
So it was tough to commit. Did we want to start with the basil-fed escargot pie ($12.95) bathed in a garlic, fennel, and St. André cream sauce? The wild mushroom tartlet ($9.95) sounded good too. And then there was fried calamari with charcoaled tomato dipping sauce ($10.95). But would rich appetizers spoil us for a main course of horseradish-crusted salmon ($22.95), crabmeat-crusted Florida grouper ($29.95), or oak-grilled New York strip steak ($34.95)? After intense negotiations, reversals, and third guesses, we chose the following: a shrimp and crabmeat salad with mangoes and hearts of palm (a special, $13.95) to be followed by a plate of roast venison ($36.95); another nightly special, "bowl of mollusks" ($13.95), followed by oak-grilled and sliced skirt steak ($26.95); and finally, an appetizer of tamarind-glazed lamb spare ribs ($11.95) to precede spicy and sweet day-boat scallops ($29.25).
We were clearly looking at a meal that, with dessert and a round of drinks, was going to pinch our budget. It takes a fair amount of chutzpah to lard a menu with appetizers costing as much as many main courses and entrées pushing the mid-$30s, prices to make even a worldly Manhattan lawyer blanch (we happened to have one along). We closed our eyes, held hands, and leapt. This meal was either going to float us aloft on warm Florida currents or drop us in the river like a bag of rocks.
First impressions: A basket of bread -- sweet, dark raisin, and sourdough slices, was served with a garlic red pepper bean dip, rather heavy-handed and uninteresting. And it was clearly impossible with the raisin bread. A ramekin of sweet, European-style butter would have been better. But that sourdough (speedily replenished on request) was ideal with a steaming dish of scallops, clams, and mussels in their shells, bathed in a broth that we enviously discussed how to replicate at home. Chorizo gave it heat, butter and white wine gave it body, fresh corn kernels and chopped tomato offered texture, and notes of heavenly bivalve juices laced with cilantro provided the triumphant base.
We also liked the tamarind-glazed lamb ribs. The flavor of tamarind is so unique, redolent of the Caribbean and Central America. The little ribs held their own in the heavy sauce, although by the end of the plate, we'd tired of the strong flavor. The special crab and shrimp salad, unfortunately, offered only four disappointing slivers of crab the size of a woman's fingernail; it was so glaringly parsimonious that we wondered if the kitchen were drawing out a dwindling supply. We dipped these precious morsels in a dab of aioli. The four shrimp were fresh; the mango with hearts of palm, cool and tropical. If they'd tripled the crab content, it might have been worth $14.
But then -- ah then -- our attentive waiter and his supporting cast ferried in our entrées. A luscious dish of grilled venison, cooked medium rare, sliced and smothered in a complex sauce of grilled onions, diced liver, wild mushrooms, apples, and a wine reduction, was set before us, a beautiful thing, trailing hearty vapors. Eating it was like sinking into a bed of velvet. And a sliced, oak-grilled skirt steak, equally rich and perfectly cooked, lavishly marbled, was really a revelation. Made even more decadent with a pat of Cabernet herb butter, it was ensconced like a beefy king on a throne of garlicky escarole and a side of fingerling potatoes. Another dish we desperately wished we could replicate at home.
Our giant scallops, the biggest and firmest I've seen anywhere for a long time, weren't enhanced by their sweet-hot preparation. The spicy citrus sauce was too hot and too sweet -- even for our craven tastes. The heat overpowered the scallops, so subtle and flavorful that they could have been successfully grilled in nothing but butter. Coarse black Thai rice, chopped mango salsa, and baby bok choy made graceful company. And the whimsical presentation of this colorful plate was a pleasure.
We splurged on dessert. Key lime pie baked Alaska ($6.50) was a witty joke on a Florida cliché, setting lime mousse on a buttery crust of Brazil nuts and graham crackers, adding a dashing browned meringue topper and daubs of strawberry coulis for color. Fun and fetching. Meanwhile, the chocoholics dug in to the "D.O.A for Two" ($10.95), a melting, dark-chocolate minisoufflé, identified as "warm chocolate decadence cake," a dab of ganache on a cookie, a scoop of chocolate ice cream with raspberry sauce, and a handful of almond biscotti and pirouettes. A plate the size of a breakfast tray didn't deter them. I did my part with a potent espresso and vanilla vodka martini rimmed in sugar ($8.25).
Despite one or two dishes that need refining, this was a superb meal, in a setting that really has no rival. You can't spend two hours at River House without starting to swoon around like a turn-of-the-century heroine. On our way out, a bride and groom, still dressed in their finery, were waiting at the valet station for their limo, the last happy couple to leave a long, late-running party. Clearly, they'd been having such a good time that they just couldn't tear themselves away.