Trolling on the river
Sacramento, CA 95822
Riverside dining is the apparent blessing, but actually the curse, of Sacramento. It sounds so good: a nice meal, a view of the slowly rolling waters, gleaming sunset in the west. It’s actually fraught with peril. Sure, there are potential mosquitoes or stiff breezes, but I’m really talking about the food. I don’t know of a riverside restaurant in Sacramento that gets it really right. A few more ambitious places have opened (with decidedly mixed results), but in general, the level of dining by our best natural feature has fallen somewhere a peg or two below mediocrity.
Enter the ambitious new hotel/yacht mooring station/wedding destination Le Rivage—south of the city center on the Sacramento River—and its restaurant. Are they trying to do something better? Well, yes, and I regret to say, no. They’ve got the area’s newest outpost of Scott’s Seafood, the small chain of perennially popular, quite expensive, but culinary-wise, shall we say, unchallenging restaurants.
Scott’s is the kind of place you can take your parents or grandma, or go on a blind date when you’re not sure if your date dares to eat anything out of the ordinary. (However, do check if he or she is a vegetarian, first; there’s not much here for him or her if they are.) The extent of any adventurousness is a mild bit of Asian fusion going on. There’s surf ’n’ turf, various kinds of seafood louis, oysters, Australian lobster tails, sole dore, cioppino, steaks for the non-fish-loving crowd and so forth. Similarly, the wine list is about what you’d expect. In the whites, twice as many chardonnays as everything else combined; the same goes for cabernets among the reds. You’re unlikely to find brands you’ve never heard of before; it’s all pitched straight up the middle.
The dining room is big, as befits a large hotel, and decorated with white, mollusky wall sculptures by artist Stephanie Taylor, plus glass forms and ironwork—nice touches, though a slightly institutional feel prevails. If it’s a nice night, the patio overlooking the river is attractive. There’s also a lively, slightly clubby bar outfitted with cushy leather chairs.
Wanting to test out the basics, I started off with a Caesar salad, which was so heavy on the cheese that you could barely get to the crunch of the lettuce. Now, I like a dusting—a heavy dusting, even—of grated cheese, or maybe shaved Parmesan, on a Caesar, but it needs to have a lightness about it. Here, it was the stubby, thick shreds that come in a plastic tub at the supermarket, and I am pretty sure that they would have outweighed the actual lettuce in the salad. Anyway, the croutons were nice and crunchy and fresh, but the salad was overdressed with a pretty undistinguished Caesar dressing; the lone anchovy seemed adrift.
My husband’s steamed mussels with white wine weren’t much better. The broth was saline and cleanly oceanic, if plain, but the mussels themselves were a little icky, most oozing with that dark green goop—which happens, but with nearly all of them it seemed excessive. They hadn’t gone off or anything, but they had a little too much of that usually nice mussel funk. The broth went well with the old-school, San Francisco-style sourdough bread, soft inside with a blistered golden crust.
My husband’s main dish was one of the steak-seafood combos: filet mignon with a skewer of grilled prawns. The latter were slightly tough and overdone, the former a bit underdone (according to his order, anyway; it came out blood-rare). With it was a big mound of good mashed potatoes, a creamy and underpowered peppercorn sauce and several green beans, plus a scattering of batter-fried onion strings that had gone sadly limp and greasy.
Greasiness was also a bit of a problem with my blackened Pacific snapper, which came with a “ginger-lime citronette” that turned out to be an oily dressing of sorts drizzled on the plate; a should-have-been-crunchy polenta crouton was also oleaginous. The fish was spicy and nicely cooked, but its bed of sautéed spinach was so overpowered by garlic, it was unpalatable. I liked the snappy pineapple relish alongside, but the dish tried to do too much. This was one of more exotic offerings on the menu, and it just didn’t quite come together.
Service had been efficient, brisk and friendly, but it ground to a near-halt around dessert time. From the generally dull selection (crème brûlée, lava cake, “raspberry jack”—ice cream with liqueur-soaked raspberries), we ordered an item served warm—blueberry crisp with a caramel-macadamia crust—so perhaps it was the kitchen’s delay in baking it; it did come out hot, but still a little under-baked, with that top crust more floury (and in spots soggy) than crisp. The macadamias were overwhelmed by cloying caramel.
Any less-than-ideal aspects to the food, however, weren’t stopping the crowds; on our visit, Scott’s was overrun, including the outdoor tables and banquet rooms. I guess riverside dining is still a lure. If you’re determined to eat by the water, the new Scott’s may be your best bet. Just don’t expect greatness.