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Review: Sip Riverside

The River Room's tapas transformation

The River Room was one of those throwback restaurants — a place with old-school upscale food, a clubby dining room, and not enough personality or style to make it particularly noteworthy. Still, the River Room trucked along for years, making its way on the scotch proclivities of after-work drinkers and the Vinings/North Buckhead steak and salad set. But no longer. The River Room is now Sip, the second outpost of a tapas and wine concept. The original Sip, in Milton, hums along pleasantly in a newish fake town center. By comparison, the River Room space in the Post Riverside Town Square off of Northside Parkway feels a tad stodgy. And a tad empty.

Which is too bad, seeing as the impetus behind the change is the owners' desire to draw in recession-weary diners who balked at the River Room's high prices. "The River Room was the third most expensive restaurant in the area," writes general manager Cliff Sinon on the restaurant's blog. "Most restaurants run a 300% to 400% markup... Let's go with the other school of thought and focus on volume."

This makes sense in Milton, where a retail wine component and café-like setup make for a room that feels like a classic wine bar — convivial, casual, and appropriate to pop into for a bottle or a glass and a nibble. At Riverside, there is no retail shop, and the room's formal pallor makes it an unlikely destination for informal sipping.

Little to nothing has changed about the restaurant's appearance. A long row of semi-circle booths sits between an open kitchen; tables and huge windows look out over a patio. The management seems to have acknowledged the difference in tone between this location and Milton, mainly by providing heftier food at the new restaurant. Rather than a menu made up exclusively of tapas, small plates are served alongside a list of entrées.

The food is the work of chef Daniel Massie, a Culinary Institute of America graduate. His plates, small and large, present bold international flavors that are at once better than might be expected and also difficult to put together in any way that makes sense. Japanese dishes on the menu butt up against Thai concoctions; Mexican plates make way for classic upscale continental entrées.

A roasted beet salad is topped with the obvious crumble of goat cheese, but has personality and zing thanks to a mint and orange vinaigrette. Thai mussels come in a broth that's deep with coconut and rich with green curry – hardly revolutionary but well executed all the same. Papas fritas was the only dish I encountered that took the menu's cultural mashup and presented it on one plate. The oblong fries were crispy, translucent in places, and totally addictive. The spicy house-made ketchup would have sufficed as a pairing for the slivers of fried potatoes. White truffle oil only distracted.

A smoked chicken stuffed poblano had a nice light coating, but the contents underneath all mushed together in a vaguely Mexican-tasting glop without enough brightness to lend distinction.

Entrées are more Euro-centric, the approach which seems to be Massie's strong suit. Ratatouille under grilled lamb chops was olive-heavy, rich and soothing. Grilled black kingfish is worth the price for the accompanying leek and fennel gratin – all crisp and sweet, served with a lemon beurre blanc.

Taken one by one, Massie's dishes show taste and talent. The cultural mishmash of flavors can be a tad unnerving to the palate, however. I'd prefer a menu that chose one direction and stuck with it. But where this kind of confusion usually points to a kitchen that just doesn't understand any one cuisine well enough to deliver an entire menu based around it, here I think the aim is more to please a wide variety of diners. Whether you want a cheese plate, some dainty smoked salmon, burger-like sliders or weird South American-style corn pancakes with spicy peanut and cucumber relish, Sip's got you covered.

Wine takes the same route as the menu — the list is modest in size and international in scope, with plenty of crowd-pleasers and a few daring and interesting selections. All wines are available by the "sip," the half glass and the glass, allowing for experimentation without huge commitment. So go ahead and order a sip of the Godello or Müller-Thurgau – at less than $2, you've got little to lose.

But the same can't be said for the owners, who have made a huge gamble that folks want more affordable and malleable options. The River Room had a cachet, and international tapas are a lesser-known quantity. But if the room and the neighborhood can warm to the concept, Sip Riverside has a real chance to outshine its predecessor.

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