American beauty

What comes to mind when you think of Land Park? The zoo? Family-friendly neighborhoods full of older homes? Or chic design, strong cocktails and a hip crowd at an urbane supper club?

If it’s not the latter—and until recently it probably wasn’t—you might want to think again. Riverside Clubhouse may be just opposite the Sacramento Historic City Cemetery, but its scene is far from dead. It was opened last year by brother restaurateurs Matt and Fred Haines, whose 33rd Street Bistro similarly gave East Sacramento dining a fresh flair. SN&R’s review of Riverside Clubhouse when it first opened found a few kinks to be worked out; on this revisit, we found an appealing and smoothly running operation.

The vibe is swanky but elegantly understated—a pretty neat trick for a place that has three big TVs in the bar, fully visible from many of the dining tables. They’re overshadowed, however, by the visual interest of the large oval bar. If you don’t call for a reservation, you may have to wait for a table, as we did, and the bar is a pretty pleasant place to do it.

I don’t usually like ostentatious restaurant design—I’d rather restaurateurs concentrated on food—but I like what they’ve done at Riverside. It’s full of interesting details and cool touches. The gorgeous patio outside has a terracotta-colored wall of cascading water and an artsy fireplace adorned with geometric sculptures. Another fireplace inside made me look twice, too; its flames leapt directly off a sparkling bed of iridescent, jewel-like crystals.

Of course, I may have been extra captivated, because I noticed the fireplace after my cocktail. Riverside’s take on a sidecar, with rum instead of the usual brandy, was quite frankly a doozy. I had been tempted to order a Manhattan, and I’m glad I didn’t; it probably would have reached up and knocked me off my comfortable leather-upholstered barstool. As befits a club, Riverside has the de rigueur specialty cocktail list, but here the drinks don’t seem to be just a trendy frill. They’re well-mixed, potent and not too sweet. On my sidecar, the discreet rim of superfine sugar on the glass actually brought the drink into tart-sweet balance rather than making it saccharine.

The wait for our table was much shorter than the 40 minutes we were told, which was a nice surprise. We turned to the menu, which offered not only a range of tasty choices with an emphasis on American classics, but also some equally tasty typos. I’m a compulsive menu proofreader, which I know is completely obnoxious. (At least I’ve never offered to edit a menu in exchange for free food. I’ve been tempted, though.) Riverside’s menu had a problem with the letter “i”: A glass of “Reisling” ignored the i-before-e rule, and, in the ne plus ultra of menu typos, the “shitake” mushrooms had an “i” that most unfortunately had gone missing. I steered clear but did order a glass of the Riesling to go with my chicken.

As is so often the case, the starters were the best-sounding things on the menu. We started with fried salt-and-pepper calamari. I loved the saltiness of this not-too-greasy rendition, which came out of the kitchen almost too hot to handle. I also loved the Thai sweet-chili dipping sauce, with a coconut kick.

We were going to split a salad, but the server considerately warned us about the $2 split-plate charge. I find split-plate charges irritating, so I was glad about the warning. We also asked about the espresso-glazed ribs, listed among the “club plates”—a different name for small plates. The server disarmingly confessed that he had never tried them; they’re so popular that he doesn’t get an employee discount on them. It was a secondhand recommendation but good enough for us. I can see why they’re popular: the glaze is complex, and they’re meaty without the unctuously fatty texture of most ribs.

Next to these, the salad was bound to be overshadowed, but it was actually great. It had a lot of elements—a roasted-garlic dressing, dried cherries, pistachios and crumbled cheese—but was dressed and garnished with a light touch. The only element that threatened to dominate was the pistachios, and who could complain about an excess of pistachios?

After the success of the small plates and appetizers, the entrees were a tiny bit disappointing. My chicken was on the dry side, though the pineapple chutney had a nice flavor. The light slaw was strangely bitter, and the potatoes were a touch undercooked. The juicy pork chop was better, though the onion rings that came with it were not fried as well as the calamari. I wished I’d tried the yummy-sounding main-dish sandwiches on a separate menu section. Next time, I’ll concentrate on those or make a meal of appetizers and club plates, or I’ll go back for weekend brunch.

Our dessert, berry shortcake, returned to form. It was a straightforward rendition of the classic, with raspberries and blackberries added. The thin, buttery biscuits soaked up the juices and tasted just like an old-fashioned Fourth of July treat. In fact, summer is probably Riverside Clubhouse’s best season. Concentrate on the simpler, all-American fare, from ribs to shortcake, and sit on the patio for a stylish summer night out in Land Park.