Downriver Grill holds fond memories for me. I remember lunching there right after my older son was born, rocking a fussy newborn and soothing myself with gorgonzola fries. I don’t remember what my husband gave me for our anniversary five years ago, but I do remember the peppery parmesan-crusted scallop and prawn caprese that we shared with a glass of wine. I recall other celebrations with pasta puttanesca, Tuscan linguine and Hal’s Tuna.
So when I heard that Downriver Grill hired a new chef and was making some changes, I was concerned. Happily, the crispy waffle-cut gorgonzola fries ($9) are still served in a bowl with enough cheesy sauce to require a large spoon, and the pasta dishes are mostly unchanged.
“A lot of the staples we didn’t mess with too much,” says chef Ryan Stoy, who came on board in August. Many of the grill’s customers are regulars who come from the surrounding Audubon Park neighborhood. Any talk of removing signature items like gorgonzola fries or the French dip sandwich is met with strong opposition – even death threats, Stoy said.
“Changing the menu is always a gamble,” said Stoy, who admitted taking a lot of heat for scratching the popular scallop and prawn caprese from the menu. But it’s necessary to keep things fresh and make room for new dishes, he explains.
Many of the changes so far are about fine tuning recipes and stepping up the quality of ingredients. The shrimp bisque has been reworked for improved consistency, the Caesar salad sports an anchovy crouton and Stoy’s Italian sausage spices up the puttanesca pasta.
Other dishes have been reinvented, like the smoked portobello ciabatta ($12). The current version, layered with smoky grilled bread, tangy balsamic bell pepper relish, brie and artichoke pesto, had even my mushroom-hating friend singing its praises. The chipotle BBQ burger ($11), with its sweet caramelized onions, salty bacon and spicy barbecue sauce received a tune-up as well with a more flavorful grind of beef and a side of garlic aioli.
The grilled pork chop ($20) is a new addition to the menu. Brined and then grilled, the pork is juicy, salty-sweet and has a hint of spice from the chorizo butter on top. The vegetables served alongside were equally impressive: red wine braised artichokes, tender red potatoes and sautéed zucchini. The arugula and herb fettucine ($13), also new, is a light, satisfying dish with capers, arugula and shaved Parmesan in a lemon cream sauce. Cougar Gold mac ’n cheese ($11) and lemon honey grilled salmon with lentils ($20) have been recently added.
The Fresh Sheet has been expanded to showcase seasonal dishes and allow room for creativity. A recent special, the seared salmon with fresh pappardelle ($20) was full of flavorful sausage, fresh spinach and plump marinated tomatoes. I liked the Pappardelle, but with Stoy’s commitment to showcasing quality ingredients I would have hoped to see house-made pasta on a Fresh Sheet dish.
Pint-size diners can choose chicken fingers, linguine with marinara or mac ’n cheese ($5) from the kids’ menu.
Downriver Grill has a full bar and plenty of beer and local wine choices. Definitely worth a try is the house wine, Relentless Red, developed by local vintner Don Townshend. This five-grape blend has a hint of spiciness and pairs well with the grill’s pasta dishes.
Downriver Grill’s service shined on a recent dinner visit. After being seated next to a party of 20, I envisioned a noisy meal punctuated by slow service and two hungry, cranky kids. Even with a full house, our orders came out seamlessly. Thanks to sound-absorbing acoustics, we enjoyed a peaceful evening.
The dessert menu offers good variety, including several gluten-free options like chocolate pot de crème and crème brulee. A playful rendition of s’mores ($7) slathered creamy marshmallows and chocolate mousse between two graham crackers and topped the whole thing with strawberry balsamic syrup. Each element of this Fresh Sheet dessert was made from scratch and completely delicious.
Downriver Grill is on a journey to become more contemporary while remaining faithful to its loyal customers. More changes are planned, including an interior remodel, patio update and a vegetable garden. Stoy is off to a smart start by reinventing classic dishes to keep them fresh while slowly introducing new menu items.
The grill reserves a spot on my list of favorite places with attention to detail and quality ingredients in dishes that are accessible and affordable. Now if only they would bring back the scallop and prawn caprese.