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Monday, July 24, 2006 

Fine dining tradition continues at Two Rivers Lodge

Guilt can be a wonderful thing. For instance, if your boyfriend is about to embark on a cross-country bicycle trip, leaving you alone for several months, he may just feel guilty enough to offer to take you out for a really nice meal. And when you drape yourself across his lap and purr "Let's go to Two Rivers Lodge," well, how can he say no?

Two Rivers has always stood out in my mind as that place I let visiting relatives take me. It's not convenient to my Goldhill location, nor is it exactly in my budget, but my mouth waters every time I pass it on my way to the hot springs. Owner Tony Marisco sold the restaurant to Daniel Raimon in early 2006, and I wondered if the restaurant had changed under its new stewardship.

We were seated in the atrium, which gave us the advantage of an outside feeling but provided protection against the bugs. As we perused the menu, we sipped our glasses of water, something I don't think I did on previous visits. I'm certain I would have recalled the yellowish tinge and metallic taste to the water. After a few sips, I decided to wait for a glass of wine to quench my thirst, but Tom kept drinking. "I'm too cheap to pay for San Pellegrino," he explained. The waitress informed us that the kitchen was out of the Raclette Jura ($9), a tempting cheese fondue, so we agreed on calamari belle meuniere ($12) for an appetizer.

Being a typical American, I was expecting rings and tiny squid, but instead was delighted by a hefty calamari steak. The sauteed meat was slightly crisp on the outside, and I found it firm and barely rubbery. The meat was nearly flavorless, providing a blank canvas for the lemon, butter and capers to paint a tangy picture. Our waitress also delivered a small loaf of fresh, warm bread to the table along with oil and spices. It was a pleasant change from the typical dinner rolls and butter, but we could have used more oil.

I opted for a house salad with Dijon vinaigrette and informed Tom that he would get the cream of vegetable soup. Compared to some recent dinner salads, this one was a standout: The fresh greens were barely dressed, which let their natural flavors shin through, and the red peppers were a nice touch. Tom, however, was not as pleased with his soup. "It needs something in it," he said. "Cream soups are just no fun." On the surface it was a lovely soup, with a striking creamy gold color, but it lacked substance and flavor. I prescribed heavy does of salt and pepper, which improved the soup but still left something to be desired.

The entrees at Two Rivers Lodge run the gamut, from chicken breast stuffed with prosciutto and goat cheese served on a bed of polenta ($29) to filet mignon Marchand de Vin ($35). Careful consultation with our waitress helped us narrow the selection down to New York steak gorgonzola ($31) and ahi tuna Two Rivers ($26), served with wasabi creme fraiche and romesco sauce. I anticipated a creamy gorgonzola sauce poured over the top of my steak, and was instead surprised with a wedge of salty, smoky cheese resting on the steak. I soon saw the wisdom of being able to cut small slabs of cheese to accompany each bite. The steak itself was big and juicy, cooked to a perfect medium-rare. Even better for me was the large mound of tangy garlic potatoes on the plate. A confirmed potatoholic, I savored every bite of the roughly mashed spuds. Chunks of tender potato floated serenely amid the mashed tubers, all flavored with garlic and butter.

Never one to resist the lure of sinus-searing horseradish, Tom quickly dug into his tuna. The fish was wonderfully firm with a pleasant, fresh flavor, but the sauce was the best part. Slightly grainy, it felt silky in the mouth, then hit the nostrils with a gentle punch. Wasabi-phobes would do well to try this dish, as the kick is not extreme. Both entrees were served with a side of vegetables. Rather than typical steamed veggies, the chef had sent out mounds of a vegetable ragout. I thought this a savory though odd choice, but Tom was pleased. "Clearly a side dish can stand on its own," he noted.

Since I was still working off Tom's residual guilt, I demanded a dessert of my very own and was justly rewarded with a piece of strawberry tart. The thickly sliced berries were coated in a sweet, thick syrup and nestled in a sweet crust. For all my love of pizza crust, I usually don’t like pie crusts. To my surprise, the tart crust had a sweet, milky flavor and a nice crunch. My only qualm was the crust's density. A fork alone had difficulty penetrating it, and I had to resort to a knife to cut up the rest of the crust. Tom went the traditional route and ordered tiramisu, but Two Rivers Lodge gave the Italian treat a new twist with a hint of maple flavor. "It's like some kind of Vermont confection," Tom said as he devoured his dessert. I could taste the maple, but found the coffee flavor too strong for my palate.

While I noted some changes to the atmosphere and menu at Two Rivers Lodge, the restaurant still remains one of the finest in the area. Although entrees are pricey, each one offers an unconventional twist on a traditional dish and is carefully prepared. Past visits did not leave me disappointed, and I was happy to leave sated once again. I hope Tom takes another big trip soon, because I'm itching to try that stuffed chicken breast.

Review published in The Ester Republic.

Its a real shame that they did away with Tuscan Gardens outside on the deck....a real shame....great tapas, and an outdoor feel without the touristy grind like in town on the Chena....live music on Fridays, too....

I posted a review at a couple of websites a few weeks ago after my first visit to Two Rivers Lodge--at which I was completely blown away. Unfortunately, I'm working on call now and can't be that far out of town (and I've got to have cell phone reception, which I seem to recall was weak out that way, at least with Cellular One), so I can't go back to try anything else. In any case, I figured I'd share my experience here. Hope you enjoy! (This is my edited down version--I had a longer one talking a bit more about the service and bread/soup, but I lost it after hitting "submit" on the shorter one.)

I stopped here on a whim driving down Chena Hot Springs Road and was blown away. I couldn't decide between the five tenderloin medallions in a peppercorn sauce and the California-grilled halibut in an avocado/roasted pepper sauce, so my server checked with the chef, and I ended up with bit of both--both of which were absolutely to die for.

The meat was extremely tender and flavorful (they get organically-raised beef from Mistly Isle Farms in Washington) and I couldn't get enough of the peppercorn sauce (a creme fraise and wine base). The halibut was flaky, moist, and perfectly done, and the avocado sauce was delicious--very mild but with noticeable roasted pepper flavors and a hint of tanginess. Sides of slightly toasted mashed potatoes and butter-roasted carrot slices completed the artfully-presented plate.

I was full after the dinner, but judging from the quality of the meal, there was no way I could pass up their desserts. I opted for a freshly-whipped (an hour and a half before) chocolate mousse, which melted in my mouth, and a decaf coffee, brewed rich and dark (almost a European style).

The meal plus a glass of San Pellegrino sparkling water netted $46.50--not bad by Alaskan standards and definitely worth the quality of food served. The service was excellent (I appreciated their willingness to go out of the way to accommodate both of my cravings) and the ambiance very nice. While the restaurant's web site bills itself as a five-star restaurant, I'd put it in the four star category (although the food quality may make it a contender for a five-star rating). The only thing I'd suggest avoiding is the tap water--it has the same taste of iron that nearly all of the Fairbanks North Star Borough's well water contains (they'd do well to put a few more filters on their tap).

All in all, I enjoyed the restaurant and would consider it one of the highlights of the Fairbanks area. I'd certainly recommend that every Fairbanksan who likes good "gourmet" food and every traveler who wants to sample the finest that Fairbanks has to offer give it a try. Enjoy!

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