The ghosts of restaurants past still haunt Rivers, one of Portland's best riverside dining rooms. But the restaurant's Northwest-influenced comfort food continues to be consistently good enough to rival the view of the Willamette.
Chef Rolland Wesen received a lot of local attention when he took over the kitchen back in April 2003, thanks to honing his skills and reputation at such notable Manhattan eateries as the Rainbow Room and Gramercy Tavern. Wesen had to overcome what he terms "the multiple bad experiences" longtime Portlanders associate with this tucked-away location on the busy thoroughfare to Lake Oswego, thanks to now-forgotten places such as Rivers American Grill, Avalon and Sherwood's.
But Wesen's delicious signature salad of duck confit, endive and roasted pecans in a pomegranate-molasses vinaigrette ($9) is one sign the kitchen is in confident hands. Or there's the roasted double pork chop with an apple, pear and thyme compote ($24), tender and juicy with a sweet-savory flavor, or any of the decadent desserts.
Food isn't the only comforting thing at Rivers. The bar features a colorful tile backdrop, swanky bar stools reminiscent of a James Bond flick, and wood floors inlaid with a playful fish design, all of which contrast nicely with the more subdued setting of the dining room. Here, soft green colors and floor-to-ceiling views of Ross Island and the river offer a tranquil backdrop, while a second level ensures there's not a bad seat in the house. Through a long window separating the dining room from the kitchen, savvy diners can see who's cooking (Wesen's the really tall guy). If it's the view you're after, remember that dark comes early these days, and reserve a seat for a night the Christmas Ships are sailing the Willamette.
Rivers' winter menu is wildly rich, offering enough butter, fat, jus and potatoes in a meal to clog every last artery. Not a bad thing for fine dining, of course. The kitchen's attention to technique is apparent in the seemingly simple grilled rib-eye ($25). It's no surprise that the steak is served perfectly medium-rare, but it's the herb fries--salty, crispy and tender--and the grilled mixed vegetables (whatever is delivered that day by local farmers) that complete the dish. Another standout includes the delectable sautéed Maine diver scallops ($26) served atop creamy wild-mushroom risotto. The scallops are perfectly cooked, with a pan-seared crust that brings out the sea-sweetness of the mollusks, and the risotto, rich with the flavor of the slightly sharp wine-enhanced chicken jus, has a satisfying taste nearly hearty enough for a meal in itself.
A few of the appetizers are less successful. Perhaps Wesen feels compelled to offer Dungeness crab cakes ($12) given the restaurant's water-view location, but the texture of the crab is disappointing. You expect to taste hunks of claw and leg, but instead what's served feels mushy on the tongue. The gnocchi ($9) are paired with sautéed chanterelles and cashews, and while that mushroom-and-nut combination might suggest an Asian influence, the ingredients simply don't jell with the accompanying vegetable broth that looks like a broken Hollandaise on the plate. These not-so-good dishes are, thankfully, rare.
But if a meal is a performance, dessert at Rivers steals the show, as pastry chef Shelly du Plessis goes the extra mile with clever presentation. Her version of opera cake ($8), delivered in the form of a baby grand piano with a chocolate cover, hits traditional notes with its mix of almonds, coffee and chocolate. On a recent night, the playful Chocolate Lady Bug ($8), which looks just like its namesake and is filled with mousse, hazelnut genoise and candied hazelnuts, practically drew applause from a nearby table. There's also the pumpkin cheesecake ($7), which doesn't look as dramatic but offers a melt-in-your-mouth creaminess, the pumpkin flavor heightened by sweet-tart apple slivers and a crunchy, spicy ginger cookie. Bravo!
Wesen and du Plessis deserve a round of applause for restoring locals' taste for riverside fine dining. It's worth taking another chance on this prime location, as the food offers proof that Rivers' former ghosts have been thoroughly exorcised.
0470 SW Hamilton Court, 802-5850.7 am-10 pm Monday-Thursday, 7 am-11 pm Friday, 8 am-11 pm Saturday, 8 am-10 pm Sunday. Credit cards accepted. $$$ Expensive.
Picks: Grilled rib-eye steak, roasted pork chop, sautéed scallops, pumpkin cheesecake.
Tast the Christmas Ships from Rivers' dining room when the Willamette fleet sails every other night Dec. 11-21, and the restaurant offers two seatings--5-5:30 pm and 7:30-8 pm--to take advantage of the upriver and downriver processions. Reservations strongly recommended. For fleet schedules, visit www.christmasships.org .