When Tony Rao bought the River Oaks Grill recently, who could have imagined the harm it would do nice Burt Lancaster? One of the restaurant's best features is a mural filled with Hollywood legends. In addition to Lancaster, there's a young Frank Sinatra (it's hard to imagine now, but, yes, he was young once), a liz-civious Liz Taylor, a disdainful Dietrich, a fawning Dean Martin and a horribly depressed Clark Gable. ("Frankly, my dear, I don't give a rat's ass.") Yet of all of these people, it was Lancaster who drew Rao's ire. "I'm going to replace him," he said when we chatted recently. "He's an old-timer."
I couldn't believe my ears. "An old-timer? He's one of the greats."
"Al Pacino is one of the greats as well."
Come on, Tony. You can't replace a legend with a parvenu. This is the Birdman of Alcatraz, for God's sake. This is Elmer Gantry. If you must make room for Pacino, dump the insufferable Dean Martin.
Though in possession of the River Oaks Grill a mere three months, Rao has already left his mark. An avid reformer, he's determined to banish the athenaeum atmosphere that has long plagued this place. Rao has little time for fuddy-duddies. The tone he wants to set is one he calls "snappy casual." This is not a man to stand on ceremony. The first time I ate here, Rao was wearing a gray polo shirt, and the second time, he greeted diners while garbed in an apron. A very clean apron, I should add. You won't see Rao in a dirty one. Reformist he might be, but he's no iconoclast.
But for all Rao's efforts -- and he's far from done -- the ethos at the River Oaks Grill remains, for the moment at least, conspicuously masculine. There's lot of wood and brass, a mammoth bar, pictures of racehorses and, gazing sadly from a wall not far from Frank Sinatra, the head of a moose.
Women do come here, of course, though they don't look at all the type to challenge male hegemony. (Several struck me as the sort who wouldn't for a moment consider lighting their own cigarettes and who retire to their fainting couches at the first sign of trouble.) The men, though, are another matter. Very much in the hunter-gatherer tradition, they don't merely sit at their tables, they huddle at them. Huddle so closely they might have been butting heads. Which is why, I suppose, that after an hour or two here, I felt myself part of some grand intrigue. They were up to something, those huddling men casting anxious glances at one another and fondling their cell phones. At the River Oaks Grill, one has the feeling -- entirely spurious, I'm sure -- that great things are afoot.
In collaboration with Michele LeBleu, his executive chef -- late of Cafe Annie and a veteran of Desert Storm -- Rao is still in the process of finalizing his menu. What this means is that, for now, LeBleu is cooking not just her dishes, but those of her predecessor as well. Normally, chefs hate this sort of thing. But LeBleu has a generous spirit. She doesn't distinguish between new and old, giving both her full attention.
The lobster bisque ($6.95) was sheer luxury. Rich with cream and exquisitely smooth, it danced on the tongue. And it had character. After a spoonful or two, I felt I'd known it all my life. This was a bisque it was possible to trust. Tell it your deepest secret, and it wouldn't bat an eye.
The Louisiana seafood gumbo ($6.50) wasn't quite in the same class. There were shrimp here and scallops and crawfish -- everything you'd expect to find in a gumbo, in fact. Everything except personality. A good gumbo has a dark undertow. It has a slight air of menace. Of the soup family, gumbo is the one who's spent ten years in the stir. It's the one with tattoos on its back. LeBleu's gumbo is too sunny. Real gumbo doesn't say, "Have a good day." It says, "Hey, squirt. Are you looking at me?"
The vegetable napoleon ($7.50) is delicious. The vegetables -- zucchini, eggplant and red and yellow peppers -- are roasted, served with fresh mozzarella and topped with a tomato sauce so clean and fresh and bright, it took my breath away. I'd forgotten how degenerate most tomato sauces have become. This was the real thing.
If only the salmon tartare ($8.95) had been half as good. This is one of those dishes LeBleu inherited, and though she gives it her best shot, you can tell that her heart isn't in it. Thin slices of cured salmon are sprinkled with capers and served in a bowl of radicchio leaves. So far so good and, were that the size of it, all might be hunky-dory. But the urge to enhance can be hard to resist. And so, where a light vinaigrette would have done, a remoulade has been added. And a cloying remoulade at that. Put simply, it doesn't work.
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I tried two fish dishes at the River Oaks Grill: Dover sole ($19) and sauteed trout ($13.50). Order sole in many restaurants, and you're likely to be given flounder. Rao's sole, he assures me, is the real thing. And I did enjoy it. But it was upstaged by a vegetable I'd not had before: pea shoots. Tasting like spinach, they're sauteed in butter and sprinkled with a little ginger. Try them. They're scrumptious.
The trout didn't please as much as the sole for the reason that it was overcooked. Fish poses special problems for chefs. Exposed to too much heat, it can spoil in seconds. What's needed are sound instincts and expert timing. And quite frankly, not everyone is up to the job. But I did enjoy the garnish of chopped pears and bacon bits, the one providing the plate with welcome texture, the other lending the fish a pleasant smokiness.
Orange-scented chicken ($12.50) -- pan-roasted and served with asparagus and shiitake mushrooms -- is worth your consideration. Not, though, the grilled London broil sandwich ($12). Served with zucchini strips and a mayonnaise fortified with roasted shallots and Armagnac, it sounded great, but tasted awful. I blame the mayonnaise -- too much brandy, perhaps? -- because after I'd scraped it away, that sandwich tasted perfectly fine.
The River Oaks Grill, 2630 Westheimer, 520-1738.