Sometimes you go for the atmosphere, and sometimes you go for the food. Last week we introduced “Atlanta Classics” — a new feature in which Jon Watson takes a non-critical look at beloved institutions. This week marks the debut of “Atlanta Revisited,” where Jenny Turknett offers assessments of longstanding restaurants to let you know if they still merit a visit.
Thanks for reading — John Kessler
A Google search suggests that the average life span of a restaurant is five to 10 years.
If that’s true, a 28-year-old restaurant must have a formula for success. Ray’s on the River opened in 1984 and has aged gracefully over that time. The restaurant, a seafood and chophouse, is known for its long stretch of frontage on the Chattahoochee River, with steppingstone paths meandering through a landscaped paradise and benches offering picturesque views.
In 2007, on its 23rd birthday, Ray’s on the River received a major face-lift. The result was a highly polished interior with glossy dark-wood accents, dark-patterned fabrics and dark-striped carpet. The feeling is decidedly corporate, a contrast to the romantic river view but perfect for the business crowd that frequents the restaurant for weekday lunches and dinners. This is the clientele that can expense wine from the extensive California-heavy (though not exclusive) wine list with bottles that can range from $30 (Beringer White Zinfandel) to $750 (Colgin Estate, IX Red). This is also the clientele that expects the high level of service that Ray’s strives to provide.
Over its history, many chefs have passed through the kitchen at Ray’s on the River. Chef Josh Warner now leads the kitchen, having been promoted from sous chef to executive chef in October. Warner’s experience includes working with Karen Hilliard at Georgia Grille and Scott Serpas at Sia’s. He describes his role at Ray’s as “a caretaker of classic recipes.”
The formula for success of a restaurant with a long history must include balancing signature (and at times, dated) dishes with innovation. For example, Warner says the broiled seafood platter ($38) may not represent his style, but it’s what many guests expect when they come to Ray’s on the River, a sustainable seafood spot known for having its own temperature-controlled fish house.
Warner has, however, tweaked some of the classics at Ray’s. For example, the New Orleans barbecue shrimp appetizer ($10), with a tangy and spicy butter sauce made with lager from Red Hare Brewing Co., now comes accompanied by two triangular grit cakes. Good call, Warner. The creamy Boursin-laced grits with a lightly fried crust are easily the best component of the dish, balancing the sauce’s spice and mimicking its decadence.
Warner also tinkered with the Guinness-marinated pork chop ($26), a recipe resurrected from Ray’s in the City. He added a smoky sweet maple and whole-grain mustard sauce, which works wonders to make the tough meat of a well-done (rather than the medium requested) chop ingestible.
And speaking of sauces, let’s chat about the drinkable one served on the shrimp and grits ($15). But first, do you like sherry in your she-crab soup? If not, skip ahead. If so, stay with me. Think of Logan Turnpike grits cooked in cream and broth with a contrasting pop of sweetness from the cream sherry sauce. Add caramelized onions, long strips of roasted red peppers and a little heat from the shrimp sauteed with garlic and chili flakes and you’ve got the picture.
A sauce might have also been in order for the grilled grouper fillet ($28), which our server told us was one of the most popular items from the “seafood market” section of the menu. Despite having a lovely grilled flavor, the grouper had an unpleasant chew. The salsa cruda, made with herbs grown at the restaurant, added a nice freshness but did little to distract from the bouncy texture.
Warner has added new items to the menu, such as herb-grilled lamb chops ($32) and the ahi tuna tataki ($14). The lightly seared sushi-grade ahi rubbed with a house-made blackening spice is one of my favorites here. The meaty slices of tuna dipped in the slightly soy, lemon and mirin ponzu sauce paired with a vinegary pickled cucumber salad play a fun little game of sweet vs. tart.
I’d like to see Warner tackle dishes like the panko-crusted Parmesan scallops (what Parmesan?) with lobster risotto (what lobster?) ($32) that offer little flavor. We may just see that happen. Warner continues to update the menu and is rolling out a new one in the coming months. He says he is trying to add lighter dishes and minimize the heavy mashed potato presence on the menu.
While “not cutting-edge” by Warner’s own admission, Ray’s on the River attempts to remain relevant while balancing its history and guests’ expectations. But one thing’s for sure: The restaurant has a formula for success, and it includes a breathtaking view.Ray’s on the River 6700 Powers Ferry Road N.W., Sandy Springs, 770-955-1187 Food: Seafood and chophouse Service: Professional Best dishes: Ahi tuna tataki, shrimp and grits Vegetarian selections: Salads, pasta marinara Credit cards: All major credit cards Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays, 12-3 p.m. and 5-11 p.m. Saturdays, 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Sundays Children: Yes, especially if well behaved Parking: Yes, valet available Reservations: Yes Wheelchair access: Yes Smoking: No Noise level: Low to moderate Patio: Small seating area Takeout: Yes