Linen Meets Pigskin 

A new West End bistro plays both sides.

click to enlarge food51_rivers_ridge_200.jpg

Bill Cabaniss' new venture, Rivers Ridge, in the old Graffiti Grille spot on Ridge Road, is a study in contrasts. While the hallmarks of an upscale dining experience are all there, it just may be the classic bar fare that keeps people coming back.

In many ways, the bistro fills a pronounced fine-dining void in the area. Intricate sailboat replicas top the booths, brass detailing nods to the nautical and glass partitions are engraved with the restaurant's double “R” motif. The mahogany-trimmed interior, white linens, fresh flowers and entrees such as pork osso buco all suggest a restaurant that should be taken seriously. And thoughtful touches, such as the stack of black napkins at the hostess station reserved for patrons in dark pants, and a knee-friendly layer of foam under the tables, reveal an experienced restaurateur at the helm.

After stints operating Cabo's Corner Bistro and Julep's, Cabaniss had a clear idea of what his customers would be looking for, he says: “great food at a reasonable price” and a classy but not stuffy atmosphere. The neighbors have definitely discovered it. On a recent Saturday night, the bar was hopping and the full dining room suggested reservations were a good idea. But with the attentive service and cozy booths, a couple looking for a special night out could find that too.

Chef Chaz Robinson has crafted a menu that feels carefully selected, if not always well-executed. The pan-seared duck breast was a standout — tender and flavorful with a sweet apple-cider glaze — though the accompanying roasted tomato mashed potatoes lacked much tomato kick. The spiced crusted tuna was similarly disappointing. The filet was generous but dry, and the roasted potatoes wanted a crispier exterior. The shrimp fusilli, however, was a creamy, buttery confection of noodles, peas, bacon and perfectly cooked shrimp. And a special — the short ribs topped with pickled red onions — was plate-licking good and deserved a permanent spot on the menu.

The weekday scene is a mix of River Road matrons and young professionals, and the lunch lineup includes the traditional staples: soups, salads, sandwiches and pastas. Despite a waiter's recommendation as one of the most popular dishes, the grilled chicken and spinach salad was a disappointment. The chicken was tough and under-seasoned, and the cheddar cheese tasted of the preshredded, bagged variety (call in the Parmigiano-Reggiano, please), but the candied walnuts and tasty riesling dressing salvaged the meal. Likewise, the Clyde's croissant was a curious combo of grilled ham, cheddar and a heaping pile of scrambled eggs on a sweet croissant. It works as a breakfast sandwich, maybe, but for lunch it could lose the eggs.

The desserts at Rivers Ridge are all served in the white shallow ramekins usually reserved for crA"me brulee. The texture of the turtle cheesecake, especially, suffers as a result. Despite the tasty caramel, the cake felt dry and grainy in the mouth — a slice from the wheel would have worked better. But the flourless death by chocolate was as rich and decadent as expected, aside from the garnish of mushy strawberries.

It's the traditional bar grub that stands out, though. The chicken and spicy andouille gumbo had just the right heat level, and the calamari is reason enough for a visit. The grilled hot wings put a sophisticated spin on the Buffalo original with their crispy skin and tangy house-made sauce.

And the bar itself feels like the heart and soul of the place. Nicknamed “Clyde's Corner,” in honor of Cabaniss' friend who passed away from cancer, the expanse of dark wood and low-hanging lights give it a clubby, steakhouse feel, and the friendly bartenders steer you in all the right directions — including, thankfully, to the Philly Chris steak. Named for the dishwasher-turned-line-cook who made it, this is a cheese steak to make any native of the city of Brotherly Love proud. A decadent heap of thin-sliced steak, caramelized onions and peppers, and the classic orange three-cheese sauce top a soft hoagie roll. The thick-cut, house-made potato chips are equally heavenly. If you're near Rivers Ridge, grab a stool, order a beer and the grilled hot wings (and whatever else the bartender recommends) and you just might think you've landed in sports bar heaven.  S

Tess Autrey Bosher is a native of South Carolina and graduate of the University of Virginia. After several years as a corporate lawyer in New York City, she found her true calling at the Institute of Culinary Education. Before moving to Richmond, she worked for Saveur magazine and the Food Network, and ran her own catering business, Sweet Jane Desserts.

Rivers Ridge ($$$)
403 B N. Ridge Road in Tuckahoe Shopping Center
288-0633
Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Dinner: Monday-Saturday, 4:30-11 p.m.  Sunday brunch: 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
nonsmoking
Handicapped accessible

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