River Gods

An Irish pub that’s a real restaurant (with a punk sensibility)
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  May 24, 2006
2.0 2.0 Stars

RIVER GODS: goes in many directions — and somehow it hangs together.

I’ve gotten over the novelty of Irish bars with good food, but River Gods is a novelty in so many other directions, I think it could only happen in Cambridge. It’s motley, it’s hip, it’s crowded and comfortable and over-decorated, and the food veers toward Korean and Thai fusion. It’s got comfort food, it’s got a long list of vegan options, it pulls a terrific Guinness, the French fries ($4.50) are famous — and somehow it all hangs together.

You walk in under a piece of stained glass in memory of someone. Then there’s a mermaid hanging down from the ceiling. What about the suit of armor in the back, or the old pump organ to the left of it? Over the bar is a collection of gargoyle-looking creatures with some Celtic crosses, although if you were to meet a wizard at the bar, he or she would probably be a computer wizard. The chairs don’t match, but some of them are throne-like, and the whole place is full of odd old mirrors and stuff — it’s Cambridge eclecticism with a punk sensibility. And certainly there are references to rivers and gods.

The food has nothing to do with either: there’s not a note of catfish or ambrosia. For appetizers or bar snacks, it would be hard to avoid the eight kinds of skewers (minimum order three, mix and match). We tried marinated tofu ($3), shrimp ($4.25), and marinated chicken ($3.50). The tofu had a nice tang of wasabi vinegar. The shrimp, four large ones, were a best buy, with some taste of the fire but not grilled dry. The chicken was crowded onto the skewer at about double your typical Thai proportions, although it wasn’t heavily flavored. All went well with the somewhat-Thai spicy-orange dip.

Chicken soup with dumplings (crock/$6; bowl/$10) was real soup from real stock, I’m pretty sure. The real stock alone would be headline material, but what’s more, it was nicely filled with vegetables, chicken meat, and a few heavy herbal dumplings, such as minted gnocchi, also likely handmade. Any restaurant with real soup is a real restaurant.

Korean hand rolls ($8.50) are actually vegan sushi, eight fat maki rolls of shredded carrot and such, wrapped in rice and seaweed, the Korean part being a savory brown dip and the dots of wasabi sauce.

And then there is the plate of finger foods, which turn out to be water crackers with thin-sliced cheese (good) and smoked cheese (glorious), along with strawberries and many thin slices of unripe pear (alas) and a generous bowl of orange marmalade. Why orange marmalade? Maybe it’s an Irish-pub thing, or because the color with the green-skinned fruit makes the Irish flag, or maybe this is what river gods like with their cheese.

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