Amuse-Bouche: New Rivers

You don't know it now, but those vanilla leeks are about to blow your freakin' mind.

The identity of the classic American restaurant could well be the topic of its own AmCiv seminar. Most of us have pretty similar mental images of the Classic French Brasserie or the Classic Italian Trattoria or the Classic Mexican Taqueria, but that all kind of falls apart when it comes to American cuisine. The most obvious answers are also the most grim — McDonald’s? Applebee’s? — but it is my greatest hope that, were we to push past such folly, we’d pinpoint something a lot like New Rivers, whose locally stocked kitchen, “melting pot” of influences, and no-nonsense approach are a whole ‘nother breed of all-American.

New Rivers doesn’t look like much from the outside; in fact, you’ve probably unwittingly passed it plenty of times (it’s in a nondescript brick building off South Main Street near where Angell becomes Steeple). But the inside feels like your favorite aunt’s country house: cozy, simple furniture, fairy lights, randomly placed vases of fresh flowers. It helps that, in lieu of one gaping warehouse of a dining room, there are two smaller rooms, so the noise level doesn’t really get out of hand. All these factors alone make it an excellent candidate for February 14, whether you’re participating in Valentine’s Day or Singles’ Appreciation Day. The lowdown on the food, after the jump.

Short answer: amazing. Long answer: owing to the restaurant’s intensely locavore philosophy, the menu changes constantly (yes, constantly: I went two weekends in a row and chose from two different menus) to make use of hand-plucked products, which means you’re guaranteed to have a forkful of salad delivered that day or a chicken raised in your same zip code. Still, the food stays focused with a signature style that is both sophisticated and humble, inspired but straightforward. No gratuitous bells and whistles here.

It’s an excellent idea to start with something from the “Nibbles” section. Smaller portions = smaller prices, and the prevalence of fresh produce makes it truly nibble-worthy. You’ll find things like crispy fried artichokes or roasted chanterelle mushrooms on goat cheese toasts; our arancini (fried balls of risotto stuffed with mozzarella — JO’S, GET ON THIS) were hearty and generous enough to be a legit appetizer.

The rest of the chameleonic menu consists of renditions of staples: imaginative soup, colorful salads, charcuterie (chef Beau Vestal is also a butcher), a bounty of seafood and meat from local waters/pastures, and the like. Chicken soup with wheatberries, mushrooms, and thyme was kinda like that stuff your mom used to make you on sick days, but the little tweaks managed to make it a thousand times better — try to procure a vat of this stuff; when the temps go sub-zero, you’ll be glad you did. Seared scallops, plunked in a row with lovely little specimens of baby yellow beets and carrots, were a special treat; the addition of vanilla leeks (you heard me) was peculiar in theory but somehow just right in execution.

Pasta in any of its iterations is slammin’; the agnolotti, ravioli-esque in composition, are delicate and pillowy and addictive, whether it’s mingling with fava beans and carrots or swimming in a lemony brown butter, and the gnocchetti we had on our visit were in a wild boar ragu that was much less exotic, much more perfect than the boar’s presence may indicate–it’s what my imaginary Italian grandmother whips up for me in my wildest dreams.

All this does come with a price tag; with entrées ranging from $15 to $28, New Rivers is not a bargain, though as nice meals go, it is a good deal insofar as the food renders buyers’ remorse near-impossible. Better yet, on weeknights (Mon-Thurs), there is a $28 three-course bistro menu that might just make your dreams come true. Boys and girls, February 14 is on a Tuesday. What better occasion than to take yourself out, be it to woo your mate or toast to ridin’ solo? Don’t forget to make a reservation!

High: Mindblowingly delicious food that follows the age-old philosophy of K.I.S.S. — keep it simple, stupid — except, you know, when wheatberries/boar/vanilla leeks sneak into the picture. However, nothing feels like overkill. And the darling, socially awkward waitstaff puts free hot fudge on the homemade ice cream you order for dessert… because you’re worth it.

Low: None too easy on the average college kid’s wallet. Last week, y’all said you like meals in the $10-15 price range, and I heard you loud and clear — still, keep this in your back pocket; you never know when parents or hot dates come knocking at your door, begging to take you out for dinner.

Bottom line: One weeknight dinner at New Rivers ~ two trips to Kabob & Curry/four Chipotle burritos/11 Nice Slices. Worth the trade? Absolutely.

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