"That moose never looked so good," deadpanned the man who accompanied me to the newly facelifted River Oaks Grill.
A flattering glow from rose-pink spotlights bathed the grizzled taxidermy specimen of which he spoke -- softening the edges of the Friday-night crowd in the bargain. They were a mature bunch who could well afford the flattery. A Susan Powter doppelgänger in long, sparkly earrings flourished an improbable cigarette holder. An ancient couple who could pose as Father and Mrs. Time murmured over their Dover sole. In a prime booth, a gentleman spoke importantly into a cellular phone. Two expensively groomed women swept by, dropping a tantalizing fragment of money-talk in their wake. ("Her husband is a partner, so you can imagine ....")
Well, yes, I can. But then, the sky-high tab here has always bought the freedom to imagine: that one is a person of substance in the company of peers; that life's power to alarm can be kept at bay; that just by walking in the door one can grab some of the gold dust conferred by those two magic words, "River Oaks."
Certainly the acquisition of a little gold dust was the goal of the three young men who sat with their Friday-night dates in three separate booths for two. And it was working. The women were as different as Versace is from Episode is from Norton Ditto, but they wore identical airs of quiet satisfaction. "I'm worth it," said the looks on their faces. "I could get used to this."
These days, the venue to which they would like to become accustomed looks fresher and more '90s-friendly. An oddly antiseptic coat of white paint has lightened things up. So has the subtraction of all that clubby, Old-Boy clutter. Gone is the vintage River Oaks memorabilia; gone, except for the moose and a few furry colleagues, is the manly taxidermy of yore. In their place, neither fish nor fowl, hang the photographic equivalent of Flemish floral still lifes. So lulling is the soft light, the burnished wood, the aroma of privilege, that it comes as a shock to realize that the restaurant's capacious chairs are half upholstered and half leatherette.
That's not a bad metaphor for the clientele. On one hand, the River Oaks Grill attracts those who have arrived: the Racehorse and Naomi Hayneses of the world, the neighborhood burghers who drop in for conservative, reassuring fare and a wee hit of status. They use the place as a slightly younger version of the Confederate House. On the other hand comes the arriviste contingent, the guys who look like junior arms dealers, with babes in plunging, head-to-toe North Beach Leather on their arms. It all makes for superb people-watching.
The food that comes with this pricey floor show is usually pretty good, in a solid American country-club mode -- and sometimes better than that. Except for the infiltration of a few contemporary ingredients (fennel here, farfalle there, capellini "in a light lemon sage broth" yonder) the menu reads like something out of the city's early boom years, right down to the shrimp cocktail and the sacred luxury toppings of artichokes, mushrooms and crabmeat. New York owner Stan Parlante has luxed up the repertoire since the restaurant's old Judy Orton days; it's almost quaint to remember how au courant Orton's sturdy American grill menu seemed when it debuted back in the early '80s.
A couple of Orton's classics still survive, and they're among the River Oaks Grill's best dishes. Grilled red snapper crowned with pico de gallo and lump crabmeat -- Orton's ingenious "Tex-Mex Topping" -- works its old magic, the high-quality fish respectfully cooked, the embellishments working with the fish instead of bullying it. The Grill's skinny little onion strings, which ought to come with a historical plaque on the side, remain nice examples of the now-common genre. I wish I hadn't had to remind a waiter I had ordered them, though; and I wish they had remained in the fryer a heartbeat longer.
The more conservatively you order, the better. Oysters Rockefeller, that old Gulf-coast standby, are swoonily opulent and delicious -- their spinach gigged with scallion and a little bacon, their over-the-top hollandaise caps infused with Pernod, the anise-flavored liqueur. I'd come here just to eat them. I would not come to eat the trendy-sounding citrus fennel salad that was lacking in the punch department, its grapefruit and red onions and red-wine vinaigrette notwithstanding. Or a wild berry and pistachio salad that seemed too precious and sweet in its honey-mustard dressing. Give me the Caesar any day: the Grill's well-mannered version doesn't exactly strut, but it will do.
This is a good place for a skillfully grilled filet mignon (a natural with those oysters Rockefeller and onion strings) or for Dover sole, if you've forgotten what an ethereal, delicately flaked fish this can be. Just don't expect the sole's meuniere treatment to speak with New Orleans-style, browned-butter authority: the grill's version is as whispery as the sole itself. Infinitesimal haricots verts may come with it, but I prefer the gutsy roasted carrots and seasonal vegetables that accompanied lamb chops so rare they seemed ready to leap up and run out the door. I love rare, as a rule, but these fat-rimmed chops convinced me that even I have my limits. And at these prices, I don't want to confront them.
Nor do I want to confront crab cakes the likes of these, earthbound and stiff, their trendy five-pepper salsa with dijon and black bean sauce powerless to assist. Grilled quail glazed in a cognac sauce laced with fashionable roasted garlic came off better, although the sauce left me strangely unmoved. But a chef's-special first course of snails in puff pastry confounded my expectations in the pleasantest of ways: a lively hit of Pernod, fresh tomato and garlic made the dish far less fusty than it sounded. I liked it so much I almost didn't mind its ten-buck price tag.
The great surprise here is dessert. High restaurants frequently fall down in this department, but the River Oaks Grill delivers a couple of distinctive choices that seem to have been concocted by human hands (and a human brain) rather than by that great fancy torte-maker in the sky. The best is unthinkably luxurious rice pudding with an intriguing note of orange, but the substantial berry cobbler with cinnamony ice cream is no slouch, either. There's the inevitable carrot cake, and it's fine, but it pales beside that amazing rice pudding.
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Service? It ain't Tony's, but it ain't bad. Regulars get doted upon, as they should be in a restaurant of this particular gestalt. Newcomers may find themselves attended by a harried waiter who has too many tables to get everything straight, although gaffes are corrected with alacrity and apologies. Proprietor Parlante makes a point of schmoozing the faithful, both in the dining room and the culty bar, where he and Channel 13 general manager Jim Masucci can often be observed headhuddling, as a certain local gossip columnist would put it.
One of the chief features of the grill's recent remodeling is the way the bar has been separated from the dining room, transforming it into its own dimly lit universe. Like any universe, it operates according to its own laws. A polite pianist tinkles out show tunes, and occasionally, when the hour is late, smoochy couples cluster around and are moved to song. A waitress tucks a handful of loose pearls into the pocket of her sheer blouse "to dress it up." Grownups whose financial status and/or aspirations match up discreetly eye each other in a convenient mirror wall. In this glass of infinite possibility, a woman in a too-short skirt pauses to check her coiffure, which revolves around what seems to be a white napkin folded intricately into her hair. Then, satisfied with the effect, she turns back to the Houston strivers' theme park that is the River Oaks Grill.
River Oaks Grill, 2630 Westheimer, 520-1738.
River Oaks Grill:
oysters Rockefeller, $8.50;
grilled red snapper, $15.95;
Tex-Mex topping, $4.95;
rice pudding $5.95.