River Cafe & Marina has good "bones," as interior decorators and gardeners might say: terrific real estate (where the Ottawa River yawns into Maumee Bay), seating on the water, and a nautical decor with a fieldstone fireplace (cool days will come again).
What needs improvement is the food, the addition of a Web site, and the location of the trash container, which assaults the nose upon arrival, especially on hot days.
One blistering afternoon, my companions and I roasted on the deck, the ice diluting our drinks nanoseconds after they were served from the full bar. Big blue umbrellas should have been up and we (duh) didn't think to ask they be opened.
From the weekly menu of specials, we ordered two. Best was the Chilean peach and peanut salad ($6.99; $2.99 with entree) with slices of fresh fruit, a sprinkling of feta cheese, and a delicious homemade spicy peach vinaigrette. The contrasts of sweet, salty, soft, and crunchy were delightful.
As would be expected for this location, the menu tilts toward seafood (none local). We ordered about a half-dozen plates over a few visits and found the kitchen capable of producing meals that are acceptable but absent the culinary panache we'd like to see at this price point.
Lake Superior whitefish ($16.99) was topped with a couple of grape tomatoes and lots of capers. Its most discernible flavor seemed to be from the oil and pan in which it was fried. Ranch dressing on the salad was garlicky good, and corn on the cob was fair.
Lightly deep-fried lake perch ($17.59, from Canadian waters) was pricier than at some other venues for a comparable amount and featured scant flavor, fair texture, and a bland sauce. This came with a serving of standard-issue cole slaw large enough to feed a small country in eastern Europe. Steamed green and yellow string beans and baby carrots were downright tough. The server said they were fresh, but I wonder.
Chicken piccata ($15.99) with mushrooms and artichokes in an unremarkable wine sauce was not the usual boneless breast but small rounds, like flattened nuggets. On the side: those tough vegetables.
A request for sangria ($5) brought a DIY project: a glass of sangria wine and, on the side, slices of lemon, lime, and orange. (Note to barkeep: add splashes of rum, lemon, lime, and orange juices.)
Grouper Pontchartrain ($19.99) topped with a few shrimp was lightly battered and pan fried. The fish had good flavor but the breading wasn't crisp because of the creamy sauce.
Maryland crab cakes ($19.99) were a good bet with not quite enough spiced cream.
I loved the coconut shrimp ($9.99) appetizer (five medium-sized shrimp) with a strawberry cream.
After a couple of visits, I concluded that would I return, I'd forgo the entrees altogether and opt for a sandwich (perch, steak, burger, grouper, turkey, chicken, sliced beef; from $6.99 to $11.99) and dispense with fattening fries and a wee paper cup of coleslaw (an extra $3.29). I tested the theory on the half-pound ground round ($6.99) and the burger was, indeed, just fine. There are also five "basket" options (shrimp, perch, ribs, grouper, chicken fingers, $9.99 to $13.99).
For dessert, we sampled three pies and slices were tiny. Godiva cheesecake ($7.99) was divine; key lime ($5.99) suffered a bit of freezer burn on top and its crust had crystallized; New York cheesecake ($4.99) lacked rich density.
No vegetarian option, but there are salads and a few vegetables on the menu.
On the positive side, here's a shout-out to James, a server extraordinaire.
RIVER CAFE & MARINA
* * *
Address: 6215 Edgewater Drive, Erie.
Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 4 to 11 p.m. Friday; noon to 11 p.m. Saturday, noon to 10 p.m. Sunday. Reservations are accepted.
Wheelchair access: Yes.
Average price: $$$.
Credit cards: MC, V.
Web site: No.
Ratings: * * * * * Outstanding; * * * * Very Good; * * * Good; * * Fair; * Poor.
Star ratings are based on comparisons of similar restaurants. The Blade pays for critics' meals.
Contact Bill of Fare at: email@example.com