When we shell out upward of $100 on dinner for two, we're always on the lookout to be impressed, if not dazzled. We expect good food, maybe great food. As so often happens, we look forward to that moment or two when we come face to face with the "wow factor."
Sometimes it's the creative cooking. Sometimes it's the exceptional service. Occasionally, the only thing that excites us is a supersonic Dyson hand dryer in the men's room.
While we were less than impressed with our three recent visits to Scott's Seafood on the River, the wow factor, sure enough, kept rearing its head.
Even before we set foot inside this spacious, well- appointed restaurant with an unobstructed view of what must be the most un-photogenic stretch of river in North America, we had our eyebrow-raising moment. A sign out front of Le Rivage Hotel said the parking lot was full and that valet parking was the only option. Wow, they're shaking us down for $5 valet service. How tacky.
We were not so easily duped. Like the people who came up with the name of the hotel, we pretended we were French (thus, we couldn't read the sign), slipped past the extortionists and easily found a parking spot.
We had made reservations because this was a Friday night. Yet, when we arrived on time, all we got was a lousy vibrating pager, probably containing somebody else's germs.
It was suggested that we stand around holding on to it and once the restaurant got its act together, someone would make the thing vibrate (even though we were standing 6 feet from that certain someone), and we would be shown to our table.
This was a milestone of sorts: the first time in our dining history where a confirmed reservation included a vibrating gadget with flashing lights, a 20-minute wait with nowhere to sit, a vibration signal that traveled the distance of my wingspan and, well, no acknowledgment or apology along the way. Wow!
Eventually, a very pleasant woman escorted us to a very agreeable table, and a very attentive waiter handed us some very laminated plastic menus. Wow! I looked around for the sign that said, "No shirt, no shoes, no service."
I picked up the laminated wine list where, next to a heading called "Fun Whites," I spotted three greasy fingerprints smudged onto the plastic. Reflexively, I reached for my phone, not to check the golf scores, or see if Mom had corrected my spelling on Twitter once again, but to dictate a reminder to Siri: "Buy hand sanitizer on the way home."
That wine list itself is decent enough, with a balance of reds and whites at mostly reasonable prices, including an emphasis on local wines. But the beer selection is paltry, and nothing is from any of our very good local craft breweries.
Alas, the food at Scott's Seafood is supposed to be its strength – fresh, impeccably sourced and prepared with precision. That was not the case, we found. What made us say "wow" with more than a touch of regret was how underwhelming the cooking was, more often than not – how tame, how bland, how predictable, how 1990s.
Scott's Seafood, based on the original restaurant by that name in San Francisco, came to Sacramento through a licensing arrangement in 1991, the year the Dow Jones climbed above 3,000 for the first time and, believe it, when more than a few people thought Ross Perot would make a great president. Back then, it was OK to serve steamed green beans alongside plain ol' julienned carrots, but in 2013 that's not just tame, it's lame. In fact, the absence of creativity is persistent throughout much of the menu here, amounting to dishes that are neither entertaining nor delicious.
The appetizers are the one place on the dinner menu where a touch of flair and a degree of quality result in a decent eating experience. The panko-crusted prawns ($12.95), cooked to a beautiful, crispy golden-brown, worked nicely with the lively flavors of the plantain sauce, though it was pricey for five smallish prawns. The two crab cakes ($13.95) were also expensive for a nibble or two, along with an endive slaw that was undressed, unseasoned and, thus, pretty much a waste of a delicate leafy treat grown in the dark right down the river in Rio Vista.
Our favorite appetizer was the ahi poke lettuce wraps ($16.95) – the quality of the raw ahi (optionally, you can order it seared) was first-rate and the serving was generous. We just wish some wise guy in the kitchen had not hidden an equally ample golf-ball-size serving of wasabi among the slaw. Your correspondent/ professional eater accidentally ingested the entire wasabi ball and somehow survived – flaming nostrils, watery eyes, gasping profanities, the whole bit. When I breathed onto my laminated wine list to see what would pair with a singed esophagus, it fogged up.
Another appetizer option we liked was the ahi- avocado rolls ($10.95) with wasabi vinaigrette, in part because of the pleasing balance of flavors and textures. If we had stopped with tasty starters and views of the setting sun along Le Sacramento Rivage, we would have been perfectly content (minus the pager, the botched reservation and the valet parking scam). But we persisted and ordered entrees.
Specialty seafood restaurants are supposed to serve quality seafood that every other restaurant in town can only dream of emulating. Didn't happen.
The macadamia-crusted halibut ($29.95) was dull and disappointing, with a mere smattering of crust visible, negligible flavor and a mushy texture to the fish and watery mouth feel that suggested it had been frozen and hastily thawed. It was served with the lame side of vegetables and rice pilaf, which was halfhearted, too.
The salmon? Topped with some kind of harsh basil and mustard blend, the salmon was the worst dish of all during our three visits (and that would include an undersize and overly sweet piece of French toast and an overcooked, dried-out and spongy omelet we had for Sunday brunch). That peculiar topping overwhelmed the salmon, probably for the better – since this piece of hapless farm-raised fish from Scotland had almost no flavor whatsoever.
On another visit, we went with salmon paired with angel hair pasta tossed with tomatoes, capers and olives. Surely, that would liven things up. Not here. The salmon was more of that unforgivable blandness with the soggy texture.
The best dish by far was the ahi, which is done two ways – raw and coated in black sesame seeds or oh-so-gently seared – and presented with a little pizzazz alongside a cucumber salad. The downside to a dish this good was that it drew attention to all the inferior entrees we tried. Apparently, if you want the Scott's experience at its best, try to get the kitchen to do as little to the food as possible.
The line-caught swordfish didn't live up to our best hopes. For swordfish to be enjoyable, it should be a thick cut and cooked with caution so that the eating quality is meaty and tender and clean on the finish. Undersized and overcooked makes it tough. Our swordfish was thin and dry, saved only by the spiciness in the Jamaican-style jerk seasoning. The crisp strip of plantain was an attractive addition, but it was dried out and inedible. Rarely have we seen so many garnishes designed to dress up plates but not with the idea someone might actually try to eat them. What a waste of food.
The second-best dish was a nightly special – a whitefish from Lake Superior in a mildly peppery lemon sauce. But the broccolini, apparently intended to be grilled, was badly burnt and tasted like a piece of coal, a careless error that made us think – wow!
In an effort to play it safe, we ordered the filet mignon served with prawns only to realize that Scott's makes a pretty fair steak. A gratuitous bit of seafood reminds you where you are.
Desserts were sometimes an unfortunate reminder of what we had already experienced. The lemon ricotta cheesecake was not lemony enough to detect much flavor. The peach and blueberry crisp seemed overly rich.
The so-called "red devil" dessert – an artfully presented hodgepodge of disparate pieces of mediocrity accompanied by something called "house-churned" ice cream – was the most interesting dessert at Scott's. And by interesting, we don't necessarily mean "wow."
SCOTT'S SEAFOOD ON THE RIVER
4800 Riverside Blvd., Sacramento
Hours: Open daily 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Weekend brunch available 6:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Beverage options: Full bar
Vegetarian friendly: No
Noise level: Moderate to loud
Overall: Two stars (out of 4 stars)
The seafood offerings can be pleasant on occasion, but for upscale dining, the food falls significantly short of the heavy hitters in this competitive category.
Food: Two stars
Appetizers show off quality preparations with a touch of flair. Larger entrees tend to be old-school to the point of being dated. The best dishes seem linked to the ahi, and we can recommend these with confidence. For a full dinner experience, however, Scott's could disappoint. As a happy hour spot for drinks and a few appetizers, you're likely to find it more agreeable.
Service: Two 1/2 stars
This is the grade for uneven but acceptable overall service. Our three servers ranged from subpar to decent to excellent, the latter showing a great command of the menu, cooking technique and even the tenets of Seafood Watch, the Monterey Bay Aquarium's guide for ethical and environmentally conscious seafood eating.
Ambience: Two 1/2 stars
It's a well-appointed dining room and bar with views of the Sacramento River. Plenty of outdoor seating, too. Wouldn't it be nice if boaters could dock at the riverbank and stop in for a meal?
Value: Two stars
The mostly appealing appetizers are on the pricey side, ranging from $9.95 to $16.95. Main entrees range from $17.95 to $29.95.
Noteworthy: Scott's Seafood also is in Folsom. Le Rivage becomes a Westin property this month.
Call The Bee's Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @blarob.