Oft-changed space on Willamette takes another stab at success

Rivers at the Avalon is new, ardent and ambitiously striving toward perfection on a plate.

Standing just apart from the high-rise Avalon Hotel, Rivers offers a window on the Willamette, directly across from Ross Island.

Rivers resides in the space once occupied by the Rusty Pelican, followed by a series of expensive (and largely unsuccessful) attempts under the sobriquets Avalon, Sherwood and Rivers American Grill to take advantage of one of the most scenic sites in town. It may finally be on the verge of success.

Trained in France and Manhattan, chef Rollie Wesen is paired at home with Claudine Pepin, daughter of French celebrity chef Jacques Pepin and a chef herself. He enthusiastically embraces the culinary bounty of the Northwest, and his plates are artfully presented without overwhelming complexity.

The Fire Pot of Northwest Seafood Ñ clams, prawns, halibut and salmon simmered in a rich, spicy tomato- and saffron-flavored broth Ñ demands a dipping acquaintance with the accompanying rustic bread. The moist pan-roasted trout served with a corn johnnycake, braised spinach and dollops of roasted red pepper coulis, also earns applause.

Crispy-Skin Salmon is extraordinary. Fried in butter and surrounded by a roasted fig vinaigrette, it is paired with a German potato salad. Wesen's dinner menu also offers tasty temptations for the carnivore, from roasted chicken and sautŽed Alaskan halibut to grilled pork loin, beef rib-eye and bacon-wrapped filet mignon.

Starters include mussels steamed in chardonnay, pan-fried Dungeness crab cakes and grilled asparagus with an Oregon cheddar fondue. A rich, chilled asparagus soup is notable for its bright taste and smooth texture.

Dinner salads include one with mixed baby greens, spinach and pear. There's also an unusual baby arugula redolent of roasted garlic, parmigiano-reggiano cheese and balsamic vinaigrette. The Caesar salad lacks quantity, and the dressing is timid.

Desserts are tastefully conceived by pastry chef Shelly du Plessis. A petits fours plate is a fine choice. House-made sorbets and ice creams are notable, particularly one that combines lemon sponge cake with a lavender sorbet and a sprinkling of fresh raspberries.

The lunch menu echoes the dinner menu but is augmented by sandwich selections. A pair of tasty Dungeness crab cakes is accompanied by one leaf of frisŽe lettuce and a spoonful of lemon-peppercorn aioli. Salad choices include a pair of classics, Cobb and a nioise with seared rare ahi tuna. A cup of tomato basil soup is a mere $3 and well worth it.

And how about the service? While the service at lunch lags, at dinner it's beyond reproach. Uniforms are a welcome touch and spiffily casual.

The dining staff is ably supervised by Jim Biddle, a veteran of the Portland dining scene (Brasserie Montmartre, Atwaters, Buckman Bistro, Williams on 12th). Biddle brings a solid and successful rŽsumŽ to his second position as Rivers' wine director.

A varied wine list covers the planet's most noted wine regions. Wines by the glass come in more than 20 choices that vary weekly and are priced from $4.50 to $12. Biddle's talent is apparent in a smooth and robust flagon of California Ironstone merlot ($6).

Rivers has a generous bar menu, with dining choices that are halved in price during happy hour, which runs from 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 3:30 p.m. to close on Sunday.

Serving as the Avalon Hotel's dining operation, Rivers is open daily for breakfast and offers a lengthy menu for Saturday and Sunday brunch, including some 'hearty fare' such as roast beef hash and entrees from lunch and dinner menus.

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