Have you ever passed a bad wreck on the freeway and been unable to look away, even though you know that whatever you might see will be utterly horrible? This describes, in a nutshell, one of Sacramento's newer establishments, Bridges on the River. Had the prices not been so high, it might have been fun to watch the clumsy service, inept management and strange cuisine come out of the kitchen. As it was, it was one of the worst restaurant experiences I have had in years.
Bridges is located out on Garden Highway in a converted house, close to the I-80 bridge and right on the water. Visually, its a pretty place, if nothing spectacular. There is a nice front lawn for dining al fresco, indoors the host station is immediately on your right as you enter, the bar to the left, the kitchen housed to the right, and the dining rooms upstairs. You enter off the highway and have to take a bit of a circuitous route around the front of the restaurant to park. Unfortunately, upon entering the driveway, you are treated to a visual of the back of the restaurant, never a restaurants prettiest side.
We were greeted by a discombobulated maitre'd (perhaps he was the owner, he was wearing a rolex on his wrist), wearing his best Tommy Bahama beachwear (a white "Now and Zen" shirt and khaki shorts). I do not generally criticize someone's choice of attire, but at these prices, I would prefer some indication that I was dining at a slightly higher level than my neighborhood Dennys. The maitre'd was a genial sort, offering us a table on the lawn and asking what appeared to be the bartender to seat us. Then, something strange happened, the maitre'd called me back to the host stand and asked for my name to put in the reservations book. Calling me back to put my name (only my first) in the book seemed a bit odd, but it kept with the theme of the evening.
We were led to our table outside by the black clad bartender, who seated us at a nice table, gave us the wine list and menus and told us our server would be right over. A quick glance at the wine list revealed a poorly designed and ineptly executed list. No Sauvignon Blanc by the glass, only one Zinfandel and Pinot by the glass. The bottle selection didnt offer much hope either, it was nice to see Franciscan merlot, but I can buy that at my local Safeway anytime I get a craving. Missing was anything special, that special bottle that you have always wanted to try or perhaps an interesting by the glass selection. This wine list is unacceptable given Sacramento's proximity to Napa, Sonoma, Lodi and the foothill wine regions. Particularly poor is the representation of Zinfandels, something that would match best with the strange cuisine and is California's own grape. Another odd thing was the wine glasses. They have Bridges logo embossed at them, and appear to be the cheap wine glasses you receive for free at any local wine festival. Not an appropriate choice of stemware for an establishment offering fine wines.
After taking time to peruse the wine list, a busser finally came over and delivered bread, butter, and two glasses of water that had obviously been poured for a previous table as there were the last remnants of ice in the glassed. Had we known that this was the last person we would see for 35 minutes, perhaps we would have asked for silverware. As it was, we were forced to make do by breaking pieces of bread off and dipping them into the butter. If I had felt like dining without utensils, I would have chosen a Moroccan restaurant. After consuming our bread and having plenty of time to digest our food, a lady in a suit came out, and told us our waiter was having trouble with a wine order but that he would be out shortly. This was 35 minutes after we had last seen anyone. Finally, a frazzled waiter appeared with a tray containing one glass of wine, a bottle of wine and two empty glasses (this was the big wine issue?). He ignored us and headed to his other table and fumbled with the wine, while the suit lady spotted him, stomped out on the lawn and waited behind him and glared. After he was done with his table, the server finally approached our table, apologized and told us just how badly he had screwed up a previous table.
If you choose to dine at Bridges in spite of my advice, avoid James as a server at all costs. Not only was James slow, clumsy and inefficient, he had absolutely no understanding of the menu items. I asked James about a particular entrée, something listed as a Spice Rub Grilled Colorado Kobe Beef. I asked two questions, first the weight of the meat (he stated 8oz, but I could tell from his look that he was just making something up off the top of his head) and second, what cut of beef. James first tried telling me that this was some sort of beef shoulder piece, then worked his way to the back (getting warmer my friend), but could not tell me the cut. Then after I offered him some options (T-Bone, NY, Filet), he jumped on filet and proudly announced to me that yes, this particular piece of meat was a filet. Only after returning to the kitchen did he reappear and tell me that this was actually a flap of meat (Sounds mouthwatering, doesn't it?). I assume James meant the Onglet, commonly referred to as a hanger steak here in the United States. However, given the ineptitude I had experienced already, I had no desire to consume a "flap steak" at $28, Kobe beef or not. Later in my meal, I ordered some coffee, and James was kind enough to pour me coffee from a pot that had been reducing for some time. While this is an admirable quality in stocks and sauces, coffee is best consumed freshly brewed and free from any burnt taste. Additionally, tradition dictates the use of a saucer underneath the coffee cup, something James had no concept of. I can only say that the service matches the cuisine perfectly.
The chef at Bridges, Mitch Davis, was formerly chef at Mace's after it ceased to be relevant on the Sacramento dining scene. Here, Mr. Davis makes a schizophrenic attempt to fuse California, Mediterranean and Southern cuisine into something resembling food. Suffice to say, he fails in every sense other than the fact that what does appear on the plates is edible. Mr. Davis also seems to have some sort of orchid fetish, as they made an appearance as a garnish on every plate we ordered. I would have just preferred a lei upon entering if they enjoy orchids so much, but I must say it was amusing to see a Tomato Mozzarella Salad come out with an orchid perched in the center of the plate. I am unaware of whether Mr. Davis was in the kitchen the night I dined, but I doubt it would make much difference. Poor food is poor food and perhaps Mr. Davis should either find another line of work or perhaps let someone with a better palate govern his menu selections.
The appetizers featured a strange assortment of options, from Southern Frog Legs, sautéed scampi style with a Crispy Cajun Rice Cake, to a Castroville Smoked Artichoke, to our selection, Crawfish Corn Fritters with Louisiana Slaw and Chipotle Aioli.
Our fritters ($8 for 4) arrived with the obligatory orchid perched on a mound of chopped cabbage surrounded by our fritters. Just because cabbage is chopped up and some sort of a mayonnaise based dressing is tossed with it hardly makes it slaw. This was literally chopped cabbage tossed with what I am confident was some sort of Kraft salad dressing. The fritters were even worse. I am unsure of how they were able to lightly fry something that remained gooey and congealed in the interior, but they managed to accomplish this. This is what happens when a hush puppy goes bad. The fritter left a strange coating in our mouths, my wife described it as "plastic" while to me it tasted like I had dipped my tongue into liquid latex. Either way, this gelatinous goo should have served as a warning for the horrors to come, but I was undaunted at this point. I was however, able to identify several whole corn kernels while eating this, so I can confirm that this fritter does indeed contain corn. As for any other ingredients, your guess is as good as mine.
The soup and salad section of the menu features one soup at $7 (James didnt bother to tell us what that evenings offering was, he most likely did us a favor) a mixed green salad at $7, their "house" salad at $9, and a Tomato and Mozzarella salad and a Local Peach & Prosciutto Salad at $12. We split the Tomato and Mozzarella Salad, which brags that it contains an "aged eight year balsamic vinegar". That should have been a red flag as real balsamic is aged a minimum of 12 years by law. I should have steered clear of this junior balsamic, it definitely wasnt something to brag about. The tomatoes were fine, but being this is Sacramento in August its pretty hard to get a bad tomato. The mozzarella was passable, although nowhere near the mozzarella used at another new restaurant, Spataro, in its tomato mozzarella salad (Insalata Caprese).
Entrees start at $18 for Angel Hair Pasta with Roma Tomatoes and run to $29 for the Herb Crusted Australian Grilled Lamb Sirloin. My wife and I chose to split the Natural Sonoma Stuffed Chicken Breast at $24. This breast was wrapped in apple smoked bacon (at least the top half was), was overcooked and stuffed with some sort of cheap goat cheese herb mixture. It's not hard to stuff a chicken breast with goat cheese and herbs, in fact, I think its a staple of culinary school 101 classes. This mixture however, was so bad my wife got upset when I tried to foist some more off on her plate. Underneath said breast, we were treated to a repeat of the tomato salad (cherry tomatoes with diced basil) minus the mozzarella, 6 steamed broccolini and 2 crispy corn potato cakes. The corn potato cakes were unimaginative and plain, the broccolini the best thing we ate that night. It was fresh, and simply steamed.
I am sure that there are other culinary horrors contained on the menu of this establishment. A jambalaya ($20) that includes jasmine rice sounded scary and a kurobota slow roasted pork rack ($27) that is served with cheddar cheese jalapeno mashed potatoes and Indian succotash sounds suspicious as well. We avoided dessert as we had already sat at our table for almost two hours and the lower half of my body had finally gone numb. The only thing that came quick and was a blessing was the site of the waiter approaching with the bill. All said, 1 glass of syrah, 1 glass of cabernet, 1 order of the fritters, 1 mozzarella salad and one chicken breast ran $60.88, a price I paid gladly just to finally escape from that place.
In sum, other than ambiance, Bridges On the River offers an amateurish experience, strange food poorly presented and excrutiatingly bad service. If you enjoy the mellow sounds of traffic crossing the I-80 bridge at dusk, be sure to try it out. However, if its a nice elegant dinner you are seeking, keep driving.