Southern discomfort

Bridges on the River

2125 Garden Hwy
Sacramento, CA 95833

(916) 641-2125

As we sat huddled over dessert at Bridges on the River—the wind whipping our hair, a gas heater sputtering ineffectually nearby, and the iron mesh of the lawn chairs digging into the backs of our legs—I tried to remember what had possessed us to sit outside. A glance to my right reminded me: Ah, yes, the river view. Even though dusk had fallen, and it was all but completely dark, the view was still lovely.

Earlier in the evening, we had watched kids flying kites on the opposite bank (alas, a harbinger of the chilly wind to come) and boats making their way up and down the swift but calm water of the Sacramento. Even the hum of traffic over Interstate 80 couldn’t diminish the loveliness of sitting beneath big oak trees, watching the light fade from the evening sky.

Given that downtown Sacramento is regrettably cut off from its best natural feature, it’s no surprise that many restaurateurs head up to the Garden Highway to try to make a go of a room with a view. Unfortunately, many of them suffer from a certain—how shall I put this?—tackiness, catering to a beer-and-boats crowd that’s understandably more interested in having fun than in the food.

Bridges on the River works to separate itself from this group of restaurants, both in its physical placement and in its degree of ambition. It’s situated quite a way out on the river road, practically beneath the I-80 crossover. So far, it looks to be drawing a clientele that’s largely from the country-club set, and the spacious setting helps to explain why.

Bridges on the River is in a building very much like a sprawling house, and our table was out on a wide lawn. The effect is a Southern feel of gracious living by lazy waterways like the Mississippi, a feeling that the menu consciously underscores with dishes like crawfish corn fritters, Southern frog legs and jambalaya. But the menu is also rich with flourishes and upscale touches: prosciutto di Parma in a salad with peaches, house-made bacon and sausage, and a riot of sides and enhancements with every dish.

Unfortunately, the Big Muddy is evoked by the kitchen’s excess of flavors as well as in the setting’s resemblance to the South’s largest river. Many of the sides are overly fussy, the dishes awash in furbelows that compete with one another and with the central element of the plate.

Even the appetizers each have two accompaniments. The Castroville smoked artichoke, for instance, came with aioli and “Mediterranean relish” that turned out to be much like a chunky tapenade and didn’t particularly complement the dish. Moreover, the artichoke itself was marred by a poor match between technique and vegetable, having been rendered tough, acrid and rather bitter by the smoking.

The crawfish corn fritters were better but still flawed. Their interior was heavy, gummy and barely relieved by the sweet snap of corn and crawfish. The latter, especially, were few and far between. The accompanying Louisiana slaw tasted sharply of old onions.

Things looked up with our salad course, which paired sweet, juicy local peaches with peppery arugula, candied pecans (though walnuts were listed on the menu) and richly salty slices of prosciutto. The plate was deliciously balanced and was the best dish we tasted—though at $12 it was a pricey pleasure.

Entrees, too, were high-priced. My husband’s slow-roasted Kurobuta pork rack was tasty, as was the loose interpretation of succotash, spiked with bacon, that surrounded it. Still, its sweet glaze was a touch insipid, and a $27 pork dish ought to be extraordinary. Even a simple-sounding dish of angel-hair pasta with Roma tomatoes was $18. Especially given that service (at least out on the lawn) was rather slow and amateurish, these prices seem out of line.

I had a dish of perfectly cooked salmon surrounded with a milky-white, sweet-corn nage, perched on sautéed greens that were a little too pungently bitter and a deliciously crunchy-on-the-outside risotto cake. The whole was topped with a tarragon-corn ragout in which I couldn’t taste the tarragon; both it and the sweet corn were overwhelmed by too-strong bell peppers. Although some of the individual components of the dish were very good, it never quite cohered.

Coherence—in a more literal sense—also was a problem with my dessert, a banana cream pie that arrived in a messy glob on the plate. It tasted good, despite its thick and floury crust, but perhaps in true Southern style, it should have been sold as ’nana pudding. My husband’s apple tart, on the other hand, had a lovely flavor of the impending fall and a nice buttery crust. These were two of the menu’s simpler desserts, which is what drew us to them. A chocolate mousse with six kinds of liqueur made me wonder whether Kahlúa and sherry ever need to be in the same place. We didn’t taste it, but the menu description made it sound gimmicky and overly fussy.

That’s the problem, indeed, that plagues much of the food at Bridges on the River. With its ambitiously overcrowded plates, the restaurant is operating in defiance of its riverside location, but it shows the strain of trying just a little too hard.