I think I’m lost.
I’ve stepped off the Orange Line into a retail wonderland. There is a Le Creuset store and outlets for upscale clothing brands. Parents and kids stagger out of Legoland in an interlocking block-induced stupor. I could visit a French bakery, sushi restaurant, pizza parlor, or ice cream shop. This can’t be the same part of Somerville I used to have to convince roommates to drive me to in order to purchase Home Depot lumber and cinder blocks to create the world’s ugliest bookshelves. Come to think of it, we’d get lost then, too. Where was Assembly Square, anyway?
Now Home Depot is far from the most-exciting attraction in the area. This is Assembly Row, glossy and new, with an MBTA station and hordes of visitors every night of the week — friends shopping for clothing, couples heading to the movies, and everyone going out to eat and drink afterward. The stock photos that appear on the development’s website — young hipster dudes with kanji tattoos drinking wine with pretty, ponytailed blondes, heads tilted back in laughter — are actually not that unrealistic.
It seems as though half of them are going to River Bar, perhaps the unlikeliest spot in this unlikely lifestyle-opolis. It is the latest from restaurateur Ken Kelly, populating Somerville with places like the Independent, Foundry on Elm, Saloon, and Brass Union. Sure, I never thought I’d be able to buy a Brooks Brothers suit in these parts. But I really never thought I’d be drinking craft cocktails, eating street food-inspired small plates from a chef best known for cutting-edge food-truck fare, and gazing out at the Mystic from a three-season patio with a fire pit.
Yet here I am, and winter is clearly not one of the seasons. In warm weather, River Bar will truly come into its own. This is a tiny space, emphasis on the “bar,” where friendly fellows mix up Cardamaro smashes and absinthe frappes. There aren’t many tables, and they don’t take reservations. On a Friday, the place is too crowded to spend the 30-minute wait we are quoted inside. So we huddle by heat lamps and sip excellent mulled wine and rye toddies. The Mind Glow warms with cinnamon-heavy bitters; the Winter Still, flavored with Kummel caraway liqueur, could be called the New York Rye. Think of it as tailgating rather than waiting for a table and it’s a lot more fun. Thirty minutes go by, then 30 more. . . . Can we have that table yet? Yes, we can. It pays to ask at River Bar, where the melee sometimes overwhelms the sweet, sassy staff.
The restaurant itself is a wee box of glass and steel with beautiful white marble counters that overlook an equally wee kitchen. The close confines are likely familiar to chef Patrick Gilmartin, who co-owned food-truck favorite Staff Meal, which served the likes of foie gras baklava and Chinese sausage burritos. The food here is different, but the aesthetic is recognizable: the flavors of the world, remixed deliriously, often with an unabashed embrace of fat. Eat the house burger — grass-fed beef with bulgogi marinade, on an English muffin with a thick spread of spicy mayo, topped with bacon spring rolls — and a realization dawns with every borderline-too-much bite. River Bar might just be trying to kill you.
On one visit, the excess of this burger is glorious. The meat is flavorful with mellow heat. The bacon spring rolls are crisp and tasty. It is thoroughly satisfying decadence. On another night, the burger crosses a line. The spring rolls spurt geysers of grease. Combined with the grease from the patty, this makes the sandwich fall-apart soggy. With every bite, the arteries groan.
River Bar’s menu is a compendium of clever ideas. Some of them land.
The Scotch eggs that hit local menus with a thunk a few seasons back here appear writ adorably small. They are made with quail eggs, encased in chorizo. The crunchy exterior of the sausage is a perfect foil for the creamy yolks. Turnips and parsnips are served Buffalo-style, slicked with hot sauce (a drizzle of blue cheese would make the dish complete). Shrimp chips — the puffy, addictive, Styrofoam-esque Asian snack — come with black garlic aioli, garnished with fried shiso leaves. The thick chips have real shrimp taste, changeable in intensity from batch to batch. The aioli is all mellow flavors and unctuous ooze, delicious but not balanced. River Bar serves some serious stoner food, but its dishes could often use a hit of acid, too.
Corned beef and cabbage, that Irish classic, meets potstickers, pan-fried so that some bites are chewy, others crisp. They are served with rye dipping sauce and smears of mustard, pungent and necessary, bringing the flavors of Jewish deli into the mix. But the best part is the excellent corned beef inside the wrappers. As clever as the dumplings are, I wouldn’t mind a few slices of this on some actual rye. It’s begging to be a sandwich.
The place also makes a mean Chinese sausage, a hot-pink, meaty link with a snappy skin, served on a sub with black bean mayonnaise. There’s thick-cut purple cabbage slaw on the side (it comes with the burger, too), but pickles or some other brightening element would, again, make this sandwich even better.
Too often, River Bar’s clever ideas suffer in the execution. Meatballs and gravy are served over ramen noodles: neat! The meatballs are dense and gristly, though, with a strong gamy note in the mix. The ramen is overcooked.
Fried sweet potatoes with pomegranate molasses taste like they are coated in melted Jolly Ranchers, and the allium flavor of scallions sprinkled on top is jarring.
The French stew garbure is pure peasant fare. Made with duck confit and braised pork, it is satisfyingly meaty and smoky, with a complement of tender beans. But the texture is thin and loose, like chop suey, with all the ingredients jumbled together. A cleaner presentation would make this dish feel more restaurant-worthy.
And fried oysters are just a complete mystery, swathed in a squishy, pale substance that most resembles sea foam. They are the least appealing oysters I have ever been served.
Such missteps are baffling when one orders a dish like whole grilled redfish. It is lovely, the flesh moist and flaky, with clean, clear flavors: preserved lemon, red onion, sauteed greens. The only problem with a puff pastry-topped leek and cauliflower pot pie is its diminutive size. And a half-chicken rubbed with warm Berbere spices is perfectly roasted with the crispest skin, served with creamy, cumin-spiked yogurt and Brussels sprouts.
There is no dessert at River Bar, and they need just one: something grand and gooey and over the top, like an ice cream sundae sprinkled with cracklins, or a doughnut glazed in fish sauce caramel, or whatever wild combination Gilmartin and crew cook up.
The food at this likable spot is so crazy it just might work. When it does, it is a pleasure.
★ ★ ★ ★ Extraordinary ★ ★ ★ Excellent ★ ★ Good ★ Fair (No stars) Poor