Riverside Revival

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For years Captain’s Quarters served as a slightly refined counterpoint to the far South End’s Mike Linnig’s — a place where area residents could grab some fried seafood and a cold drink on a warm day, enlivened by boaters pulling up to the restaurant’s docks for a quick bite or to restock their beer supply. Like much of the area, though, Captain’s Quarters (now known in full as Captain’s Quarters Riverside Grille) has grown more modern and upscale — becoming bigger, bolder and in many ways better than it’s ever been before.

A marina and expensive gated residential community serve to isolate the restaurant from River Road, but not from the water. A network of decks and pathways take full advantage of the establishment’s closeness to the river. After renovations, the main building is a inviting and airy structure that feels more like a park lodge than a restaurant. From large windows to expansive decks to a private party yacht, diners have a number of ways to enjoy the river — and some pretty good food to enjoy it with.

While the old just-Quarters menu relied heavily on “seafood shack” staples such as fried fish, burgers and chips, the Riverside Grille edition has much more ambitious offerings, with an emphasis on white-tablecloth style and flair. Sure, you can still get a tasty fried Atlantic cod sandwich ($7.95) and a plate of excellent fried banana peppers ($5.95). The long strips of peppers, lightly breaded in cornmeal batter, have their mild bite and crisp coating enhanced by a spicy cocktail sauce. But the old Harrod’s Tavern (the restaurant’s original, humble incarnation) would never have dreamed of serving up crisp-fried slices of portobella mushrooms, stacked Lincoln Logs-style on top of pesto aioli drizzled with a balsamic vinegar reduction ($6.95). And past customers might be surprised that in addition to cod, blackened grouper, trout and pan-seared tuna with wasabi crust are all available.

The large restaurant’s main dining room has a raised smoking section with full bar, dominated by a stone fireplace and huge windows looking out toward the Ohio and Harrods Creek. Through the entrance walkway on the other side is a tavern area with pool table, booths and many televisions. The outside dining area is vast and varied, with plenty of space for dining, dancing, partying or simply enjoying close proximity to the river. (If you pull up by boat, you can expect dock service from a menu only slightly less extensive than what’s found in the main dining room.) And, amid all the deck space, tablecloths and flasks of flavored olive oil, the old Captain’s Quarters bonhomie remains. Staff and servers are easygoing and courteous, and you can still find some dedicated “river rats” hanging in the tavern.

Overall, Captain’s Quarters’ kitchen works well with various fish dishes (as befits a riverside establishment). The cooks do an especially good job with “blackened” fish, presenting spicy crusts with moist, flaky interiors in plates such as blackened grouper ($8.95). Asian pan-seared tuna ($18.95) was less satisfying on a recent visit. The adventurous presentation of wasabi- and breadcrumb-coated tuna steak — barely kissed by high heat, sliced and served cold with a chili-mango rice noodle salad — looked terrific. Unfortunately, the taste of both tuna and salad was surprisingly bland.

An outstanding seafood item is the Cajun crab cakes ($9.95). (One of the restaurant’s genial servers brought it to our table by mistake, and it looked so good we decided to keep it.) Small, thin cakes containing a moist and flavorful mix of crabmeat, scallion and lemon zest are served with a “maque choux” consisting of diced peppers, onions and corn. The choux provides a delightful counterpoint to the spicy cakes.

In addition to fish, Captain’s Quarters provides an array of salads, pizzas and dinner and lunch entrees, including an item that may have earned a spot in my Hankering Hall of Fame — the Manhattan ($8.95). I’m not sure whether this indulgence is named for the borough or the island, or even if there’s any New York connection. But the “sandwich” effortlessly blends sloppiness, decadence and lively flavor to become, like a sack of White Castles, the kind of thing that one feels compelled to partake in every so often. Shaved roast beef and brown gravy are piled on a toasted sourdough baguette, along with roasted-garlic mashed potatoes and horseradish cream sauce. The whole thing is topped with delicious, peppery fried onion strings and makes a totally funky turn on the old “au jus” open-faced beef sandwich.

A variety of desserts include a refreshing sorbet martini made with fresh fruit ($4.95) and a bananas Foster cheesecake ($4.95). This extra-sweet, creamy caramel and banana combination comes with twin caramelized banana towers and a berry mix with cream for garnish. It’s a sweet and unusual twist on traditional cheesecake.

Whether it’s a chilly fall evening or a hot summer day, the Ohio river is still a beautiful and special place to be, and there’s no better place to enjoy the rolling water than from the Captain’s vantage point.

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