The instant you enter Rivers American Grill you sense that everyone is acting as if he or she were somewhere else: Cancun perhaps, or Maui. A tropical-resort hilarity assaults you; the band on a stage above the bar grabs your attention, competing with the vibrant, fluorescent Caribbean colors of blood orange, periwinkle blue, aquamarine, chartreuse green, smoldering pink. It's the kind of place that calls a martini a "Marty."
The great feature of Rivers is the river. Like its avatars Avalon and Sherwood's on the Water, Rivers possesses an incomparable view of the Willamette and Ross Island; it's a pristine, Huck Finn prospect, and if you gaze out from your terrace table, only the occasional jogger or bicyclist silently gliding past interrupts what might be the purest 19th-century picture Portland can offer. But whether the river sufficiently redeems the experience at Rivers, or whether the kitchen offers anything comparable to the glory of the natural setting, is another question.
The menu is relatively straightforward and conventional. There's rarely anything on it you can't find at scores of other restaurants in town. Ho-hum, another crab cake, another order of onion rings, another Caesar salad; yawn, another salmon with mashed potatoes, etc. There are a few items that are less commonplace: steamers, a fire pot of fin and shellfish (a sort of Northwest cioppino), and a lovely summer soup special, iced roasted-pepper vichyssoise with basil cream. Perhaps there's something to be said for familiarity and conventionality, yet one feels the chefs have hardly tested themselves; given the crowds jamming the place, there's certainly no compulsion to provide anything the patrons seem not to mind lacking. What Rivers provides is a cross between sports bar and corporate cuisine.
The best starter I had was the vichyssoise ($3.50 cup, $4.75 bowl)--satiny but with a proper thickened texture of potato. The soup has a roseate hue from the roasted pepper puréed into it; perfectly chilled, it would be splendid with a glass of good rosé. But the plate of roasted garlic and cambazola cheese ($7.50) is plain silly--the wedge of blue is far more than anyone can or should consume, and it just sits on the plate like a big hunk of fat.
One night I ordered from a special menu an entree of ravioli stuffed with roasted summer vegetables ($12.95) as an appetizer and discovered what may be Rivers' best dish: The broth is spiked with lemon, and the cherry tomatoes are barely cooked, for maximum freshness. It's too large for a starter (Rivers is addicted to prodigious portions), but is still a good way to begin the meal. Ask the kitchen to hold off on some of the Parmesan, which tends to melt into the broth and clog things up a bit.
Only one dish of the five other entrees I tasted was entirely satisfying: a fire pot of Northwest fin and shellfish ($15.95) served in a cast iron pot. Clams, mussels and salmon are the featured players, along with roasted peppers and a lemon-caper aioli, an unnecessary addition. The broth is vibrant with a hint of fennel, and there's olive bread to soak things up. But the broiled ahi tuna ($18.95) lacked the announced coriander crust and was cold to boot (both inside from undercooking and outside from not being delivered in time to the table), while the accompanying basmati rice lacked any flavor.
As for the several meat dishes, the New York steak ($21.95) was rather fatty (believe me, normally I repudiate the "fat police") and its barbecue sauce sticky and overly sweet, rather than flavor-enhancing. I liked the pork loin chop ($16.95) better, but why do restaurants insist on putting a perfectly good slab of pork or beef squarely on top of mashed potatoes, so that each bite of meat comes up dripping potatoes?
One dark note: Bring a flashlight if you're eating on the terrace and planning to linger beyond dusk. After that hour, there's nothing but feeble candlelight to allow you to see what you're eating.
Desserts seem like an afterthought. The watery berries with a shortcake tasted as if they had been frozen and defrosted, while the cake itself was so hard I needed a knife to pierce the rocklike
density. Banana Banana (sic) Bavarian torte is a kid's dessert, though Rivers is the last place you're likely to see children; it's a frozen thing, warmed over with caramel sauce, and is unadulterated, decadent junk food.
Although they're good-natured and enthusiastic, the waiters don't seem especially knowledgeable about the menu, and service is amateurish and slow. One night my dining partner got his appetizer 10-15 minutes before I received mine.
It is just barely possible to put together a reasonable meal here, but the menu is a treacherous minefield, and you must proceed with extreme caution. If you go mostly for the view, you might excuse the ordinary fare. Or if you go to see and be seen, lingering at the bar or on the side terrace and sipping a melon 'kazi, which comes with a slice of cantaloupe as big as a Turkish scimitar in a glass holding a concoction the color of antifreeze, you might just be happy as a geoduck.
0470 SW Hamilton Court 802-5850
Open 6 am-midnight Sunday-Thursday, 6 am-1 am Friday-Saturday; bar menu only after 10 pm. Children welcome but rarely seen. Moderate to expensive $$-$$$.
Picks: Iced roasted-pepper vichyssoise, roasted summer vegetable ravioli, fire pot of Northwest fin and shellfish.
Nice touch: Stupendous, unspoiled view of the Willamette and Ross Island from the terrace and dining room.