The view of the rugged river as it rushes over one of the smaller falls is indisputably cool, from the fringe of green trees edging the steep banks to the angry white water that plunges over the rocks in a froth of sputtering foam. The restaurant's airy bar and two dining rooms -- one in renovated space that was a circa-1913 powerhouse -- are lined up Pullman-fashion, facing the water, so that a picture-postcard vista is never more than a turn of the head away.
A series of narrow open-air balconies overlooking the river and a prettily landscaped patio, sprouting a crop of colorful umbrella tables, expand the dining options when the weather is mild and provide what are undeniably some of the most striking perspectives available anywhere along the length of the Crooked River. (Romantics, however, should note that the rushing water's roar could make those balcony seats a little less suitable for a quiet tête-à-tête than imagination might suggest.) Still, for a lazy summer lunch or a round or two of after-work cocktails, an alfresco fan would be hard-pressed to find a more inspiring natural setting.
Even without the view, though, LeFever's is striking. Ocean-blue walls, a mellow wooden floor, and windows on three sides give the lounge a jaunty nautical flare. A few steps further downstream takes a diner to the powerhouse space, a casually chic room with a double row of raised booths snuggled beneath a soaring ceiling and between vintage brick walls. And finally, one comes to the most formal of the three spaces, a low-key contemporary dining gallery of gilt-framed mirrors, white tablecloths, and graceful pendant lamps with flared and fluted shades.
Although the restaurant has gone through several executive chefs since it opened in 1999 (the top toque currently being settled on the brow of chef Andrew Pluck, who has been in LeFever's kitchen almost since the beginning), the far-ranging contemporary-American menu hasn't changed its focus much. Snazzy ingredients -- think duck confit, Manchego cheese, and organic Killbuck Valley mushrooms -- abound. Entrées range from grilled steaks to pan-seared walleye to gourmet mac 'n' cheese. And prices escalate from a low of around $16 (for a toss of penne with wild 'shrooms) to highs in the rarified mid-$30 range, for such specials as a lobster-tail and filet mignon Surf & Turf combo, and lush Chilean sea bass, on a cloud of lobster-infused mashers.
But if decor, cuisine, and prices put LeFever's in the big leagues, the kitchen has an irritating propensity for choking up when it comes to quality. The Warm French Picnic, for example, a $15 starter of fruit, pastry-wrapped Brie, and chilled shrimp, sounded great on the menu, but was considerably less impressive on a plate. While the three chilled shrimp proved popping crisp and fresh, and we were only moderately disappointed by the Brie's lack of funkalicious character, the major letdown was the fruit, a decidedly unseasonal assortment of flavorless watermelon, rock-hard honeydew, and insipid cantaloupe, accompanied by a few bits of juicy pineapple and a moth-eaten-looking bunch of red grapes plopped on a wilted kale leaf.
And so it continued. Thick slices of crusty Orlando ciabatta were fresh and warm, but the accompanying "service butter," seasoned with garlic and Parmesan, had the greasy taste and texture of margarine. Béarnaise sauce, overwhelmed by what seemed to be the flavor of dried chives, was off-balance and cloying. And the puddle of demi-glace that ringed both the sea bass and the Surf & Turf was as salty as powdered beef bouillon.
There were a few high points. Entrées come with a basic mixed-greens salad, but sexier little numbers, dressed up with such goodies as cheese, dried fruits, or bacon, can be substituted for an additional charge. A generously sized spinach-and-duck-confit version, for instance, was decked out like a pop tart at the MTV Awards, with fat crumbles of blue cheese, a wealth of shiny dried cranberries, an abundance of pale green pistachios, and plenty of rich and chewy meat. If only the dressing, a white balsamic vinaigrette with honey, had been better balanced -- with less oil and a little more cleansing tartness -- the salad would have been an unqualified knockout.
Except for the commercial-tasting demi-glace, the pricey Chilean sea bass, delicate as custard, was pretty wonderful, too. So were the creamy mashed potatoes beneath it, as well as the tangle of brisk little bits of deep-fried fennel that were mounded on top. With more of that demi-glace and the equally pedestrian Béarnaise, the Surf & Turf was somewhat less impressive; still, the six-ounce petite filet was suitably silken, and the five-ounce, cold-water Canadian lobster tail (about eight mannerly bites of meat) was sweet, firm, and moist.
On the other end of the price scale, though, LeFever's version of upscale macaroni & cheese was a bore, with flaccid rigatoni in a bland and brothy blend of what was allegedly chèvre and Manchego; the saving grace was found in bits of lean, sassy chorizo mixed throughout the sauce, but even this was not enough to keep an adventurous palate actively engaged. Similarly, limp spinach linguini, topped with chunks of strong poached salmon in a thin sauce of butter, white wine, and lemon juice, became tedious after just a few bites, despite the best efforts of capers and sun-dried tomatoes to keep things interesting.
Dessert choices include housemade crème brûlée and molten chocolate extravaganzas, as well as apple pie and a three-berry tart secured from a commercial food distributor. Ironically, we had specifically asked our waiter about the provenance of the apple pie; he insisted that it was homemade, although it was obvious when it arrived at the table that it was not. Happily, we found a truly sweet ending in a pudgy little orb of peanut-butter ice cream, coated in chocolate and dusted with finely chopped toffee: Like a cold, creamy candy bar, the little homemade confection was almost enough to make us forgive our prevaricating waiter.
LeFever's staff -- hostesses, bartenders, and servers -- is young, and despite our waiter's fib, he and everyone else we encountered seemed enthusiastic and eager to please. Our waiter was friendly, quick to make recommendations, and almost equally quick to find the answers to our questions about offerings on the small by-the-glass wine list. (There is also a by-the-bottle menu, with 14 whites, about twice as many reds, and a handful of bubblies, mostly from West Coast vineyards, priced from $18 to $152 per bottle; plenty of options are priced below $35, and all the wines are also available for takeout, at retail prices.) He also saw to it that our water glasses stayed full, the table got crumbed, and when he noticed us sweating over a plate of incendiary Hungarian wax peppers, stuffed with sweet Italian sausage, he promptly fetched more bread to help extinguish the flames. Bob LeFever, too, is a genial presence, as he greets guests and makes frequent forays into the dining rooms to check on their satisfaction.
Yet a thoughtful diner can't leave here without wishing the food showed as much vivacity as the setting, the ambiance, and the service. Clever motto aside, in the absence of excellent cuisine, the cool view is likely to leave discerning diners cold.
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