THE RIVER CLUB RESTAURANT -- 3223 K St. NW. 333-8118. Open: Sunday through Thursday 5 to 11:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: small plates $5 to $11; entree plates $9 to $24. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $50 to $60 per person.
Goodbye, Charlie; hello, River Club. Much as we miss Charlie Byrd, it is hard to do less than celebrate the transformation of his restaurant.
The River Club is a dream of a place. A fantasy, it seems, as you float through an art deco haze of curved walls and murals. You probably wouldn't know such swirling etched-glass artistry still existed unless you had seen the River Club's frosty-looking panels, which serve as backdrops for fountain and waterfall. The River Club looks as if it would smell of champagne and caviar.
The casting is superb, from the dignity of the hostesses to the dashing waiters in black tie who serve wit and charm along with the quail salad and strip steaks. Even the busboys are so well rehearsed that they replace water glasses with freshly iced ones and cover trays of dirty dishes with a napkin before they carry them through the dining room.
This is a menu where a little guidance helps. Most main dishes are offered as a "Small Plate" or "Entree Plate," which means you can have one as an appetizer, order several small plates as main dishes to share, or construct a meal of three small courses rather than an appetizer and a main dish. Even more important, with such options you can sample the menu more widely than you could normally.
And this is a menu you will want to sample widely. The combinations are complex and unusual -- black sesame noodles with crab, ham and coriander sauce, for instance. Even a grilled steak is coated with two colors of mustard seed -- yellow and black -- then a red wine and horseradish sauce.
It is as experimental a menu as any I've seen, but what sets it apart from the crowd is that often the most unexpected combinations work deliciously. A lot of that has to do with subtlety.
I worried when I was told that the chef -- who is said to be only 24 years old -- calls this Thai-New Orleans cooking. Not that I was expecting blackened noodles, but it sounded like a clash of strong flavors. Instead, I discovered that this chef practices the mature art of subtlety. His sauces are delicate without being insignificant. They are accents rather than center stage, and even the cream sauces are not rich. Sauce components are employed with such restraint that coriander is an underpinning that doesn't detract from crab, and horseradish is an exclamation point to the steak. Salmon is coated with sesame seeds and sauced with papaya and Thai basil. This sounds like so many dominant flavors that perhaps the salmon could be replaced with tofu and nobody would be the wiser. Instead, the sesame coating is light, just enough to protect the salmon's juices in the cooking. And the fruit-basil sauce is a faint accent rather than a dousing. Alongside were the sweetest ripe pineapple slices I have had in a long time. I'd be hard pressed to skip the salmon paillard, though. It looks like just a plate of shoestring potatoes, but beneath them is a near-paper-thin slice of salmon cooked so it is succulent and juicy, a memorable contrast with that mound of thin, crisp potatoes.
Subtlety and cleverness -- those qualities repeat themselves at the River Club. The scallop tart looks like a flower, layered with thinly sliced vegetables, steamed and then infused with minted butter sauce enlivened by macadamia nuts. The flavors weave, distinct yet blending. Another inventive seafood dish is also a stunner: Chinese-style smoked lobster that tastes like a combination of sea and woods, tender and juicy lobster chunks in the shell with a mild smokiness (and sometimes an unfortunate saltiness). With it come deep-fried spinach leaves, spiked with ginger, a kind of grassy crunch that explodes and disappears on the tongue. Like most dishes, this makes a beautiful plate, a colorful arrangement of varied shapes and textures.
How can you choose from such an abundance? There are nearly 20 entrees, all of which sound intriguing. Choose for their beauty? Then select, in addition to the scallops and lobster, the lamb loin rolled with spinach and accompanied by warm goat cheese. And no choice is more beautiful -- or delicious -- than the spring rolls, a most elegant version of the oriental appetizer. They are spring rolls raised to immortality with a filling of moist smoked chicken and lump crab meat, the wrapper as light and crunchy as phyllo, the melon chutney a luxurious substitute for duck sauce.
Something brand new? Try large briny Miagi oysters on the half shell with an icy touch of herb sherbet. Or tomato soup dignified by smoked tomatoes, topped with a bit of sweet-spicy pineapple relish and piped with a contrasting color to turn the surface into red and white lace.
One waiter's favorite was grilled shiitake mushroom salad with scallions, lime and the nutty aroma of sesame oil. Smoky and buttery, on a bed of crisp, bright, julienned vegetables and a flurry of radicchio, it was a favorite of mine, too, but one of 10 or so favorites. Another waiter raved about the steak; afterward, I did, too.
Some dishes were merely very, very good: daily specials of double-thick lamb chops, another of quail stuffed with oysters, or on the standing menu the incendiary and haunting stir-fried shrimp with red curry, the crab with noodles, the grilled veal with a gentle mustard sauce. And a couple were nicely prepared but boring: very crisp and juicy chicken supremes, tenderloin rolled with oyster root and scallions, halibut steamed with a wan tamarind orange sauce, ordinary sliced duck breast.
As for real disappointments, they were few. Occasionally there was too much or too little salt, and the chef is too enamored of Szechuan peppercorns. One special of grouper was dry and chewy, another of squab with green chili was nearly raw and the mild sauce indistinct. Duck salad was uninteresting as well as salty. Maybe the lesson to learn is that this chef does seafood best, and birds least well; and perhaps the specials need more refinement.
Vegetable garnishes are far more ambitious than most restaurants attempt -- julienned vegetables perfectly stir-fried, fat wonderful asparagus, or lightly cooked crunchy fennel with buds of pale soft garlic. There are seldom starches, though, except the shoestring potatoes, some odd "sea urchin" potatoes coated with transparent noodles and fried (they need work) and some overpeppered but interesting fried rice.
For all its brilliance, though, there is an odd clumsiness in the River Club kitchen. Rolls are house-made, crusty and excellent except that they are seasoned with a cacophony of herbs and Szechuan peppercorns so that the interior is gritty, and they are served with honey butter, which seems silly.
This is light food. It is also brilliant food, none of the dishes repetitive even in intensity or color combination.
Lightness in the main dishes does not imply that dessert is given short shrift. There are some superb desserts. Cre`me brule'e is smooth and velvety, very rich with egg and cream and topped with a glassy, burned sugar crunch. If that isn't enough, it is served in a puff pastry shell -- a heavy one, at that -- and floats on mango sauce. Roasted pineapple in phyllo dough is glorious, largely because the pineapple is luscious, even more so for its roasting, and the phyllo crust is an airy crunch without greasiness. What's more, it comes on bittersweet chocolate sauce with a truly exceptional toasted-coconut ice cream. There are also a good plum shortcake, a handsome multilayered chocolate marjolaine and baked goat cheese with macadamia nuts and fresh fruit. All the desserts are at least worth seeing, with their painted sauce -- one color piped and swirled over another, sometimes even two colors interlaced on a third. Afterward come not chocolate truffles but small plates of exotic fruits.Though wine prices are so high they are sheer bravado, the full page of champagnes and the interesting collection of California, French and even Australian wines is hard to resist. The waiter will encourage you to investigate the dessert wines. They, too, are compelling. Just don't end with decaffeinated coffee. It tastes remarkably like instant.
The River Club is more than a restaurant. It is a place to drink four-olive martinis and dance to Frank Sinatra, a supper club of another era. It is a sophisticated and glamorous world where everything is a work of art, from the choreography of the service staff to the lacework on the dessert sauce. ::