Chomp: PumpHouse is ambitious, delicious

By by todd krainin/
Feb. 22, 2012 at 12:01 p.m.
Updated Feb. 21, 2012 at 8:22 p.m.

A study in vivid colors, the grilled ahi tuna with wasabi potatoes, ginger and asparagus is typical of the emphasis the PumpHouse puts on presentation.

A study in vivid colors, the grilled ahi tuna with wasabi potatoes, ginger and asparagus is typical of the emphasis the PumpHouse puts on presentation.   Todd Krainin for The Victoria Advocate

Walk though the iron gates of the PumpHouse Riverside Restaurant and Bar, past the illuminated trees and manicured lawn, beyond the postmodern, perpetually drizzling pump-fountains, and you could be forgiven for thinking you weren't in Victoria. But here you are, expectations raised as you pass the elegant homes of Stayton Street on your way to the Guadalupe River. This is downtown at its most impressive.

Since opening last winter, locals have struggled to describe the PumpHouse. Is it an "event" restaurant? A luxury dining experience? A vanity project? A centerpiece of downtown renovation? It is all of the above and more, and that's what makes it interesting.

The industrial-era chic dining room gets noisy when full. In a promising sign for the future, it's been busy every time I've visited. On the downside, you may find yourself yelling at the waiter to ensure your order is understood.

For quiet conversation, try the outdoor deck. Illuminated at night, the panorama of parched white trees crowding the river's west bank is eerily beautiful. Never mind the firing range down the river. Waiters and patrons seem too distracted by the gently flowing Guadalupe to notice.

What to wear in a dress-code free luxury restaurant is another question. To my right, I see ties and gowns. To my left, a man in denim overalls is in need of a shave. The PumpHouse lets you come as you are, part of an atmosphere that's more elegant than casual, yet too modern to be stuffy.

Categorizing the menu isn't easy, either. Down-home upscale? Fuddruckers wins the sweepstakes? At first glance, there are peanut butter and jelly paninis, fish tacos, hamburgers and fried mac and cheese. The Loaded Kettle Chips are potato and roquefort Euro-nachos.

But sometimes Chef Cliff Denton decides he doesn't want to coddle us, after all. The grilled ahi tuna is agreeably, and for these parts, daringly bloody on the inside. The deep crimson center, offset by bright orange ginger slices and asparagus stalks on top is a study in primary colors. Victoria cooks, by and large strict disciples of the soggy school of greens, could learn how to cook vegetables without liquifying them from this dish.

The potatoes are skinless, but satisfyingly dense. Wasabi gently infuses the starchy fluff, making a quiet waft of spice.

The French Cheese Soup with tarragon pears is a delicate success. The smooth cheese base is made to coat a slice of toasted pumpernickel bread. Don't forget to fish out the sweet bits of pear that sink to the bottom of the bowl.

The pecan crusted chicken, a beautiful slab of poultry encased in a nutty shell, is full of promise. But it doesn't quite deliver. Understatement is not something often encountered in Crossroads kitchens, and here Chef Cliff flirts with blandness. After my first bite, I reached for the salt shaker, only to find it already in the hands of my dinner companion, who was busy giving the dish a hefty dusting of flavor.

The farther the PumpHouse menu strays from the tried and true, the more it succeeds on the tongue. I suspect management is playing things conservatively, hoping to keep their (substantial) investment afloat while building a loyal clientele. But to the extent that the menu plays it safe, the PumpHouse risks becoming another hamburger and fried chicken joint with prettier presentations.

And so the young restaurant is already at a culinary crossroads. Will it continue on the safe route of comfort food in fancy dress? Or will it find the audacity to offer dishes as bold and original as its architecture? The future is up to the PumpHouse. And to our own willingness to take a few risks in the dining room.

I really want PumpHouse to succeed. Victorians deserve the kind of luxury dining experience that, until now, has been the sole province of the Oak Room. The PumpHouse is so new, with ambitions that soar above the 12th floor of O'Connor Plaza, that I'm willing to give it time to work out the kinks. My heart warms to think of how many romances will be kindled here, how much enjoyment one restaurant can bring. Even dining alone, I left the restaurant feeling satisfied and a little bit in love.



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