Our Gourmet: Unwinding at one of Portsmouth's best
River House53 Bow St., Portsmouth
Hours: Open daily 11 a.m.., Sunday at 10 a.m.; Sunday brunch 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Pricing: Entrees $11-$24; sandwiches $10-$12.
Indeed, the Port City is a cool place — to live, work and play, and going out for a meal there can be as fun as any highlight of a summer vacation — even on a chilly early-winter evening, when some diehard riverside restaurants turn up the juice on the outdoor heaters and let the windfarers be just as tough as they want to be on the balcony or deck.
We stayed inside the River House on a recent visit, and were glad at that. It looked almost, but not quite, comfortable outside, but inside we were toasty warm and experienced a cheerful dose of pre-Christmas energy among a throng of dinner patrons that matched the shoppers' enthusiasm outside on the streets spindling away from Market Square.
We think the folks on the Piscataqua-facing River House deck also enjoyed themselves but, really, we were way too wrapped up in our food and the festive ambiance to notice.
Our Gourmet: The River House is Portsmouth at its best: Casual, but nice. Classy, but cool. Gourmet, and nothing but, even with its gluten-free fry-batter options. You walk in and land in the bar, with a TV and barstools and a table or two. Turn right past the unisex bathrooms and you're in a nice little dining room, with a few nooks and crannies up or down a few stairs. Then there's a downstairs tavern room, and an upstairs function room for guests/events up to about 50 people. It's easy to get comfortable here.
OG: If you cannot find something to tempt your palate at the River House, you're in the wrong town, and certainly the wrong restaurant. Top to bottom, the menu has something for everyone, from home-cooked meatloaf and creative sandwiches to seafood of all possibilities; from award winning seafood chowder to inventive Asian delights; and from low-calorie concoctions for your gourmet salad to flatbread pizzas and full steak and pasta and seafood dinners. Then there's a dessert menu that includes “Bread Pudding of the Moment.” If you're starving when you get there you'll be half-full after just reading the menu. 9/10
The Dining Companion: River House's menu, indeed, offers a wide array of choices, and it's reasonable to sit and plan a great dinner and know it's not going to cost an arm and a leg. Entrees, including a variety of fresh seafood, Shepherd's Pie and Pasta Bake, steak or rib dinners, pasta dishes and caasseroles, run from $11 to $24 (with market price for lobster); sandwiches, including fish, meatloaf, burgers and chicken are all mostly $10 or $11 ($19 for lobster rolls); creative salads (Thai, Caesar, tuna,, spinach, steak) are $9 to $15. Great menu, great prices. 10/10
OG: Sauteed Mussels ($12) is a heaping bowl of the fresh, steaming little darlings in your choice of Cajun (with Andouille sausage and peppers added), Gorgonzola cream, or Classic (minced garlic, onions, tomatoes, herbs and white wine). There is a lot of sauce, and River House delivers garlic toast to sop up the extra goodness. And best of all, in the entire bowl there was none (not one) of the tiniest bit of crunchy sand from the sea. Sand, so often a downer with mussels, wasn't anywhere near my delicious batch of the Cajun variety. 10/10
TDC: The four at our table also shared an order of Warm Lobster Artichoke Dip ($13), accompanied by nearly two dozen small slices of sourdough toast for dipping. It was a delight, featuring a large casserole of Maine lobster meat, artichoke hearts, asiago and romano cheese and a dash of “secret” spices. If OG and I were dining just as a couple, the mussels and dip would've been sufficient for a nice meal. 9/10
TDC: River House does not win all those seafood restaurant awards for nothing. My bowl of Seafood Chowder ($9.75) was a scrumptious meal in itself. Winner of first-place awards at Portsmouth's Prescott Park's Chowder Festival three straight years, and voted “Best Chowder in New England” by viewers of New England Cable News, my seafood chowder was full of lobster, scallops, shrimp, clams and haddock, swimming in creamy clam-stock sauce — which was perfectly situated between thick and thin, and as tasty as one can ever imagine. Easily gets my vote for a return visit. 10/10
OG: Warmly ensconced inside the River House, but still only 14 feet from the swirl of the salty Piscataqua River, my pallette demanded seafood and, after the mussels, the Fresh Haddock Sandwich ($11) got my vote. A very generous slab of fresh, fried haddock filet (broiled is another choice) served on a toasted bun, with tasty coleslaw, tartar sauce, lemon and a generous helping of golden French fries. Nothing spectacular here, it's still just a fish sandwich, but it rightly takes its place on the River House dish of great food. 8/10
All the rest 18/20
OG: Our server, Sara, was mind-bendingly busy this Saturday night, but she would slow down each time she arrived at our table, park herself for a minute and listen to her guests as if they were her own children while attending to everything we wanted. She was sweet, friendly, helpful and fast — and in a restaurant brimming with hungry customers, that's great service. 9/10
TDC: River House leaves you wanting to come back. Among the choices we had no chance to get to: Vegetable Ravioli Saute ($16, with Mediterranean vegetable raviolis and cheeses and spices); Flatbread Pizza (next time it is my goal) with several varieties in the $9$11 range, with delicious $2 add-ons including goat cheese, bacon, andouille sausage and baby Maine shrimp); and then the Sweet Ending desserts, $6-$7, which include Kahlua Hot Fudge Brownie Sundae, Mrs. Walsh's (the chef's mom!) Pecan Pie, Flourless Chocolate Cake and the in-the-moment bread pudding, featuring “whimsical additions from our baker” and topped with whipped cream. 9/10
In a town full of restaurants, River House is one of Portsmouth's best, most comfortable and most friendly.
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