UP THE CONCRETE STAIRS and through the quiet front door is Riffle NW—a posh, catch-inspired seafood restaurant that rolled open its Pearl District windows two months ago. Be greeted by the charming hostesses, pause at the slick and well-attended bar, or glide to your table in the handsome, upscale-casual dining room.
Lucky parties of four or more will get a booth, but the two-tops are pleasant enough. The cocktail menu, designed by notable veteran bartender David Shenaut, lists 12 creations that will vie for top mixology laurels in town. Try the Room D ($9), with rye, Becherovka, quinine, and citrus, for a refreshing, well-balanced, and gently spiced energizer—the complex Becherovka bitters infusing the sweet rye with well-matched cinnamon. The surprising Panaché ($10), a delicious concoction of elderflower, fortified wine, and lemon, nods to our town's beery soul with a hoppy dash of IPA—a trendy, counterintuitive technique which boosts the nose and girds the drink. The Riffle Collins ($11) may be too heavy on the celery for some, but perhaps the ghost of absinthe in the waters is the thing that pulls you in.
And oh, the ice. The industry is abuzz over the five-figure investment Riffle's bar has made in their ice program, and calling it a "program" is not an overstatement. Their Rolls-Royce of an ice machine creates great, airless, diamond-clear blocks the size of a baby coffin, and they are chainsawed into playful, unique chunks that look to be looted from the very Fortress of Solitude itself. The boutique ice remains rock-hard even during a slowly nursed drink, keeping the elixirs chilled and their sophisticated qualities undiluted. On First Thursday, Riffle sculpts blocks of it out front. It's a smart signature item to play up for a place that is not only bar-forward but also specializes in food that is, ideally, kept on the stuff. Chilled freshness is designed into Riffle's very identity.
The dinner menu is divided into categories: raw, plates, supper, feature, and sides. One from either of the first two and one from the second two will make a meal—some of the feature items come à la carte and some don't, so adding a side can fill out the table with the insurance of bulk.
There are many notable dishes on the raw and plates menus. The Dockside Chowder ($11)—a robust but unthickened broth, dense with mussels, clams, red potatoes, and generous flakes of white fish—is a soul-warming bowl that doesn't skimp on protein, and is beautifully fragrant with a dusting of finely chopped fresh tarragon. The albacore tuna salad ($12) is a light meal unto itself, lavish with large pieces of fish, chilled green beans, shallots, and a dusting of toasted Panko-type bread crumbs that gives the tangy greens a satisfying texture. If you want to gross out your date or win a bet, order the sea urchin and quail egg shot ($6), which is difficult to look at without thinking of a poor little pregnant quail going to prom and having an unfortunate physical trauma in the lavatory stall. (It is light, gently briny, and refreshing, for all that.)
On to the supper and feature menus. The whole roasted fish ($28, and Thai Snapper this time, but it changes daily) is massive and gorgeous. It was entrée enough for two of me, or, as our chummy and knowledgeable waiter put it, one of him. Grilled until tender at the bone, it is served simply with greens and a citrus salad—and they will deep-fry the skeleton when you're done, for crispy tooth-picking and hidden bits. Their signature feature, the RNW Octopus ($23), is worth the hoopla: the tender, steak-like meat is pressure cooked then flash fried to finish, and served with half a deep-fried crushed potato and an inspired chorizo cream. (The meat, however, disappears too quickly, given the dish's excitement factor.) Brown butter-sautéed halibut cheeks with fennel purée and parsnip chips also had a high payoff for $19, and the crispy half chicken ($21) was thick and juicy, with a dark golden, salty skin. A fat slice of salmon on a bed of hash was excellent, but at $27 too expensive for the results.
Little growing pains (chairs with bad backs, a boring tuna paillard) and a lacking dessert list are weak spots—however, the kitchen's talent and craftsmanship is undeniable. For an upscale dinner that tabs out around $45 a person (I've included a starter and de rigueur cocktail), Riffle NW is well worth your next night out.
Tuesday-Sunday 5 pm-midnight, bar and late-night menus, unique beer and wine selections, excellent service. Don't expect fish knives, because fishermen don't use those.