One of the more pleasant rewards of obsessive restaurant-going is to return to an old friend that you've forsworn for one reason or another, only to find it back on track. I had drifted away from the River Cafe in recent years, disappointed by a series of bland fish specials that left me thinking, why bother? Even the knowledge that this longtime Montrose watering hole had a fine, reliable burger, stalwart duck quesadillas and a believable Caesar salad was not enough to bringme back.
But a couple of recent visits have revived my interest in the place. It's hard to remain indifferent in the face of almond-crusted trout in an improbable-sounding sun-dried-tomato-and-goat-cheese vinaigrette that works bigtime, gigging the mild, nicely cooked fish instead of overwhelming it. Or in the presence of a cool, refreshing first course such as the River's Santa Fe spring roll, a fat wrap of rice paper and crunchy vegetables perfect for dipping into a bracing cilantro vinaigrette.
The pastas seem revived, too -- from a gratifying spaghetti Verona tossed with Roma tomatoes, fresh basil, pine nuts, ricotta cheese and winy olives, to a quiet special of capellini with spinach leaves and non-rubbery lobster in a gentle champagne-butter sauce. And the spinach enchiladas in a brilliant red guajillo chile sauce vibrate with fresh-spinach and chile flavors.
Is it all good news? Well, no. The crab cakes are gummy and bland. The Taos empanada, a huge pastry case stuffed with feta and grilled vegetables, then perched on a tomatillo lake, is the sort of discombobulated creation that makes you ask why. And the Caesar, while robustly garlicked and anchovied, labors under too much dressing.
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Not to mention the clouds of smoke that invade the handsomely minimal dining room from both ends -- the smoking section and the bar -- or the visceral thump that comes from the music room on the far side of the wall. This is, after all, a classic Houston hangout before it is a restaurant. So relax, along with the university-ish crowd that fills the room. Quit worrying that your initially attentive waif-waiter has gone with the wind. Order a goblet full of Amy's sainted Mexican vanilla ice cream splashed with espresso and Godiva chocolate liqueur. It's the River, and it ain't at all bad.
-- Alison Cook
The River Cafe, 3615 Montrose Boulevard, 529-0088.
Santa Fe spring roll, $4.25;
spinach enchiladas $9.95;
pasta Verona $7.95.