When we first enter The Rivendell Bar & Grille, we walk by two women who are talking intently on a big sofa by the front door. One has her legs curled up comfortably underneath her, and they're both working on pints of beer. In the back, near a pool table, a bearded guy with his T-shirt hanging out from under his sweater is throwing darts with his date. Television sets are blaring all around the perimeter of the spacious dining room and bar.
My date and I are seated at a dark wood table in a formal dining area that looks incongruous amid the settees and dartboards. My date's gaze keeps drifting off toward the reality show on TV, which features couples on dates sitting at tables in restaurants. When I complain, she says she might as well watch TV since I'm not going to hold up my end of the conversation anyway. "Fascinating how life imitates reality TV," she says provocatively. I study the menu.
The first five appetizers are calamari, stuffed jalapeños, buffalo wings, nachos and quesadillas. A sandwich section with a burger, a Philly cheese steak, a sausage-and-pepper hero and a grilled chicken sandwich follow. It sounds like bar snacks. But then I read on and discover an ambitious list of steaks, salads and pastas. Insalata de tono capperi? Lobster ravioli? What's this stuff doing on the same menu with nachos and chicken wings? My first impulse is to stick with the pub grub. But I have a morbid curiosity about the fancier stuff.
We share a warm spinach salad that comes to the table in an oversize nuevo Fiestaware bowl. The dressing is made with olive oil, bacon, pine nuts, onions and mushrooms that are sautéed together and then tossed with baby spinach leaves. The wilted greens are then topped with hard-boiled egg slices. I think the salad is spectacular. My date thinks there's too much bacon on it.
"Too much bacon?" puzzles an inner voice that sounds remarkably like Homer Simpson's. I eat my half and most of hers.
For a main course, I order a ten-ounce filet mignon. The manager delivers the softball-sized steak, apologizing about the way it has been carved. The steak was so thick, the chef had to butterfly it (slice it in half horizontally) to get it cooked in the middle. Usually, you butterfly a filet only if you're going for medium well or well done, so I am dubious. I cut in to check for doneness. It's perfectly cooked to medium rare and the flavor is outstanding. Caramelized onions are served on the side, and the steak sits in a pool of buttery red chile sauce. It's the best filet I've had in ages.
The menu says, "aged Choice beef." USDA Choice is tougher than USDA Prime, but in the case of filet mignon, that can be a benefit. The cut is so tender to begin with that ultramarbled Prime can be too mushy. But I have to marvel at the splendid serendipity that brought this sub-Prime meat, butterfly butchery and bar-and-grill cooking together. I'm not impressed with half the steaks I get in steak houses, so imagine my amazement at finding a stellar one here.
My date orders the wild mushroom ravioli. Miraculously, the stuffing in the little pasta pillows actually tastes like it's made of wild mushrooms. Shiitakes, portobellos, criminis and other flavorful cultivated types are usually what they mean by "wild mushrooms" on a restaurant menu. I don't know which fungi the kitchen has put in the ravioli here, but the rich, earthy taste comes through loud and clear. The ravioli are swimming in what the menu calls "crabmeat, asparagus and wild mushroom cream sauce." It's a weird shade of gray, but it tastes like a rich crab-and-cream reduction.
"I can't believe it -- the food here is great," I comment.
"It's almost too good for the atmosphere," observes my date.
"Yeah, but that's better than the other way around," I argue. "In a fancy-looking restaurant, average food is a disappointment. But in a funky-looking place, terrific food is a welcome surprise."
On our way out the door, we pass the same two women, still curled up on the couch, and still engaged in their riveting conversation. I make an ill-advised comment about the loquacious pair. "That's what people do in restaurants -- they talk," my companion points out remedially.
"This is wonderful; we're going to come here all the time," says Loretta as soon as she sets foot in the Rivendell. The restaurant is located in that pretentious new strip center called The Shops at Memorial Heights on the southeast corner of Studemont and Washington. My friends Loretta and Joe live in the Heights, which is why I asked them to join us.
Heights residents are always desperate for new restaurants. And Joe, an Italian-American who grew up in New Jersey, is a shrewd judge of pasta. I also figure the other couple might take up some of the conversational slack. But as luck would have it, conversation is nearly impossible this time.
It's a Thursday night and the restaurant is packed. We try to get a table, but the manager warns us we may not want to stay. The place had been taken over by a not-quite-private party, and the festivities include live music, so the noise level will be high, he warns. Loretta, who is a musician, wants to know what kind of music. When we're told the group features four vocalists, she's instantly intrigued. Since the crowd is composed entirely of African-Americans, she speculates that we'll catch an up-and-coming a cappella rap group, or the black 'N Sync.
Loretta orders an off-the-menu pasta special of tricolor cheese tortellini with ham cubes in a cheesy cream sauce. The dish is incredibly rich, and she loves it. Joe gets spaghettini salvadore, which the menu describes as "pescatore-style with clams, shrimp, scallops and calamari in a fresh tomato sauce." An oversize bowl arrives brimming with al dente spaghettini tossed with a wonderfully spicy sauce and lots of seafood. The mussels have been substituted for the clams, the shrimp are huge and perfectly cooked, and the scallops are sweet and juicy. The dish is a knockout, but it's so huge Joe can barely eat half of it.
It reminds me of a spicy pasta dish in New England called shrimp fra diavolo. Joe says his family didn't use the term fra diavolo, which literally means "brother devil," to describe fiery hot dishes. I think he said they called it seafood arrabiata, which means "angry" seafood, but I couldn't hear him very well because the band had started warming up.
I try the Rivendell's Angus burger, with lettuce, tomato, mustard, mayo and Swiss. It's decent but not exceptional. My usually talkative companion, silent tonight in the face of overwhelming volume, has a grilled salmon salad. This off-menu fish salad features a moist grilled salmon filet with nicely charred edges over salad greens in an oversize bowl with sesame-ginger dressing. The dish is similar to the insalata de tono capperi, which features grilled ahi tuna over greens with capers and toasted walnuts.
The music group starts its performance with a prayer. And then the band members welcome everyone to this meeting of "Awakenings Off Campus." Evidently we've fallen in with some kind of African-American gang. I believe they call themselves "Methodists." The vocalists are excellent, but every time they sing the word "you" in a love song, they point heavenward. (Is this one of those secret hand signals?) We pay our bill and flee.
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My last visit to the Rivendell is on a Sunday afternoon, and the place has returned to its quiet former self. I sit in an outdoor dining area surrounded by potted plants and peruse the brunch menu. The couple seated behind me orders a drink special called the bottomless pitcher of mimosas. It looks inviting.
At the waitress's recommendation, I order the three-layer omelette. It turns out to be a run-of-the-mill ham, spinach and American cheese version. My companion has the crab cakes, which are served in a red chile sauce but are otherwise unremarkable. The rest of the brunch menu consists of two kinds of migas, French toast, a variation on eggs Benedict, grilled polenta and huevos rancheros. I forgive the boring food because it's such a beautiful day to sit outside.
The Rivendell Bar & Grille seems to be having some trouble deciding if it's a restaurant, a sports bar or a church hall. And as a result, it's having a hard time establishing a crowd of regulars. No doubt that will come with time. Meanwhile, if you're looking for good food in a casual setting, you're in luck. It's not too often you find such classy steaks, salads and pastas in a joint with a pool table and blaring TVs.