River House

River Rollin’

Michael Amsler

Watery save: In a location whose businesses have foundered in the past, Petaluma’s new River House combines the best of the Petaluma River with the best of wine country cuisine.

Petaluma’s River House flows with fine food

By Paula Harris

WHO CARES that the murky Petaluma River is actually a slough and one of the most contaminated waterways in the Bay Area, containing dense concentrations of copper, nickel, lead, and other scary metals? Like a trip to venomous Venice… if the evening air is temperate enough and there’s the reflection of the fat full moon shimmering upon the still water, all environmental concerns seem to evaporate into a romantic haze.

And so it was one recent midweek night as we headed toward the lighted Victorian mansion at the water’s edge–with out-of-town guests in tow–in anticipation of dinner at Petaluma’s River House Restaurant.

The gracious turreted building–built in 1888, and a popular fixture at the Petaluma Turning Basin–is radiant in its latest eatery incarnation.

Owners Boyd Jackman and Sharon Borne are former software developers who are bent on making their first foray into the food business a success: They have retained consultant James Soulé (former general manager of the renowned Masa’s restaurant in San Francisco) to develop the restaurant; the dining room manager is Richard Caggiano (a 15-year manager at Domaine Chandon); and chef Paul Irving (formerly the executive chef at the Coconut Grove supper club in San Francisco) rounds out the team.

Completely refurbished for its opening last December, the River House boasts a comfy, well-stocked bar, a cheery fireplace replete with rocking chairs for those blustery Petaluma evenings, and a spacious outdoor patio for those occasional warm ones.

Great riverside views from the Victorian bay windows, soft pastel walls, muted lighting, and recorded mellow jazz create a sophisticated yet relaxed ambiance. We were escorted to one of the intimate upstairs dining rooms and provided with menus and a selection of three rustic breads. Amid all of this comfortable, antique-y Americana, we were surprised that the tables were each covered with a thick, brown vinyl cloth, like that which protects card tables. The service, though a bit hesitant at the start, improved vastly as the evening wore on.

We began with soup of the day ($4.50)–a potato-leek that was ultra thick and silky but had an overly bland flavor. We would have preferred to taste more of a bite of leek amid all the creaminess.

But the black tiger prawn spring rolls with sweet chili sauce ($6.95) were a hit. Served on a rectangular plate and cut to resemble small pyramids, these were utterly dry and crisp outside, with a subtle chunky prawn and herb filling. No grease in sight here.

The crispy Dungeness crab cakes with spicy remoulade ($8.50)–two small cakes with flaked crab interior–delighted our out-of-towners, who pronounced them “marvelous” and polished them off in a trice.

Grilled green garlic with walnut-sherry vinaigrette ($4.50) is usually served as a side dish, but we selected it as a starter. This is infant garlic before it grows up and gets its pungent bite, and is, instead, like a breath of spring. The tender green garlic shoots looked like scallions with little garlic bulbs attached and were mild-tasting, sweet, and very fresh.

THE RIVER HOUSE has an extensive wine list (mainly Sonoma County offerings). There are also beers on tap and a selection of ciders. The wines are split into various listings such as “delicate whites,” and “softer-style reds.” Our choice, a concentrated, blackened-garnet-hued 1994 Foppiano Vineyards Petite Sirah Russian River ($21) from the “big, powerful reds” category lived up to its promise and stood up gamely to the hearty entrées from the River House’s winter menu that followed.

Short ribs braised with wine, carrots, and onions ($15.95) were meltingly tender and served in a big white bowl. Flecked with peas and pieces of root veggies and served with wine sauce and mashed potato, the dish crooned comfort, comfort, comfort.

Half a roast garlic chicken with pan gravy ($13.95) was crowned with a generous cache of roasted garlic cloves. The chicken was golden and tasty outside and moist within and was served with more of those smooth Yukon gold mashed potatoes.

The dry-aged New York steak with Sonoma cabernet roast shallot sauce ($21.95) was a standout. The generous slab of grilled steak, about an inch thick, was tender inside and slightly crisp on the outside, with a buttery rich flavor. Accompanying it were expert au gratin potatoes, which were dense and creamy and contained a hint of nutmeg.

The vegetarian entrée of grilled portobello mushroom with cilantro risotto and red curry broth ($14.95) was an unusual presentation, with the risotto heaped atop a huge mushroom cap that was surrounded by a spicy, creamy coconut sauce reminiscent of Thai curry.

The desserts are all made in-house by pastry chef Wallace Vazquez. The bittersweet chocolate torte with chantilly cream ($4.95) had adult appeal–definitely not sugary, but lingering and intense, with a dark pool of chocolate sauce.

Warm pear-cranberry crisp with vanilla ice cream ($4.95) was a rich and fruity delight. And the Meyer lemon tart ($4.95) was a luscious concoction. Cool and lemony with a delicate pastry base, it was served with twin splotches of fresh cream and puréed blackberry sauce.

By then, we were in a state fit to do nothing more than waddle down the stairs and out into the fresh evening air. With a final glance back at the beautiful Petaluma River gleaming softly in the darkness, we headed home.

River House Restaurant
222 Weller St., Petaluma; 769-0123
Hours: Open daily; lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Sunday brunch, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner, 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. (10 p.m. on weekends); bar menu between lunch and dinner hours
Food: Contemporary American with occasional offshore influences
Service: Good
Ambiance: Relaxed, intimate upstairs; bistrolike downstairs; needs to lose those vinyl tablecloths
Price: Moderate to expensive; appetizers tend to be pricy
Wine list: Large selection; 90 percent Sonoma County offerings
Overall: ****(out of four stars)

From the March 19-25, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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