first impressions: riffle nw in portland

I’ve never been satisfied with the realities of the seafood restaurant, perhaps because the concept is so promising but the execution so terribly difficult.  A new restaurant in the Pearl, Riffle NW, takes on the challenge.  The menu is promising with very fresh fish entrees, a handful of raw offerings and small plates, and simple sides.  I like it that they restrain from the temptations of a huge selection, or worse, taking the lazy route of the deep fryer.

Riffle seems as if it’s been around longer than just a few months.  The restaurant is not too loud, which is nice and surprising given the concrete floors and open design, but there are some kinks in service and communication that will be worked out over time, I’m sure.  One can see the raw bar and a brick oven from the dining area.  The bar is small and hard to approach if patrons are clotted at the bar tables, but it looks like a very friendly, open space once you get there, with a projection of old cooking shows on one concrete wall.  The main restaurant seating is slightly too crowded, with some seating around the side of the restaurant perched on platforms that give me vertigo (something exacerbated by my wheelchair vantage point, no doubt), and an area that opens out to the street that looks better.

I’m not sure the drink menu slid into a wooden bar that slides into a slot on the tabletop is a good idea, but they’ll figure that out once someone spills a glass of merlot down through the slot and on to her Jimmy Choos.

The cocktails are mature and sophisticated, unsurprisingly given the team behind the bar. And this country bumpkin is still enchanted by gigantic ice cubes.  I’m not too proud to admit it.  I was also tickled to see my darling Becherovka incorporated in an interpretation of a Beton called a Room D (rye, Becherovka, tonic water, and lemon and grapefruit).  We also enjoyed a Riffle Collins, which incorporated another of my cocktail favorites, celery juice, with gin, lime, and absinthe, and comped Vieux Carrés, a perfect version of the classic, when our entrees were late.  Excellent waiter.

If I have only one suggestion, it would be to boost the boldness of the sides and sauces, and work on matches made in heaven.  The seafood is very good, but the mains and sides seemed not to have much chemistry, and I suspect stronger spices and vinegared salads might complement some of the lighter fish. I don’t think this is a cardinal sin by any means, just a quibble, since the food is good and can be even better.  It’s miles better than the last new place we tried, Smallwares, which had the extremely odd problem of having too much umami in everything — the chef is enamored with seaweed and fish sauce and other glutamates, enough so that it blunts the palate and makes you want to wash out your mouth with fresh water.

But at Riffle, everything we had was mild, including the beet-cured salmon carpaccio with a bacon aioli, ice lettuce, and hazelnuts.  The beet flavor wasn’t even noticeable and it would be wonderful if it was — perhaps with a beet salad instead of the insipid, broken aioli?  The mackerel, allegedly served with a “summer vegetable salad,” had a red pepper-fennel slaw that was bright and cheery and excellent with this deliciously strong, oily, fish, but also a weird, slightly sweet and taupe vegetable purée of some sort that didn’t work at all.  We ate clean, cold little kusshi oysters with a “bloody mary” sauce, which was too much like cocktail sauce to be interesting.  Just a lemon would have been better, now that I think of it.  We both loved the smoked tomato broth with the ling cod, but wish the fish had been poached in it, as the broth didn’t really permeate the flesh, and it was difficult to eat the full-length frenched green beans nestled under the fish.  The kale and beans side was our fault — it didn’t work with anything, but it was tasty, if not Miss Oregon 2012.

Probably the star of the night, which negates much of what I’ve said about stronger flavors and even fish, was the giant mountain of shredded brussels sprouts with walnut, a citrus dressing, and some kind of snowy white cheese that might have been pecorino or a relation.  I would have been happy just eating that all night.

Desserts looked appetizing for the sweet tooth, especially if “semifreddo” doesn’t mean “half a baguette” as Retrogrouch claimed it did (thank you yet again, Google), and instead is a frozen chocolate concoction.  We opted for sugared donut holes with a very vibrant, raspberry-forward raspberry curd, and we were glad we did.

I’ll be watching this restaurant with curiosity.  It’s the first new one I’ve seen in a while in PDX that seems like it has potential for longevity.  Tonight they’ll be debuting “Neighborhood Night,” which really does seem like fun: they’ll serve house-made spicy sausage with a melange of peppers on a semolina roll with a salad.  Next time I’ll have to come up for that…I’ll be the neighbor from the wrong side of the tracks, or the poor relation, or something.  Best of luck, Rifflers, and see you again!

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