Back in the River

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.

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.

River Cafe:
Santa Fe spring roll, $4.25;
spinach enchiladas $9.95;
pasta Verona $7.95.


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