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.
Now about those French fries. We got ours with the steak-sandwich special, itself an impressive heap of tenderloin tips on an interesting soft wheat bread and served with a large salad of field greens besides. The fries are thin, browned, crisp, and a good vehicle for ketchup. I didn’t find them remarkable for potato flavor, but I have to confess that it had been only a week since I’d tasted the best fried potatoes I’ve ever had, at a seaside resort in Portugal. River Gods usually has Portuguese soup, but it has yet to perfect Portuguese French fries.
The duck entrée ($14.50) is basically a salad, with slices of duck breast and baby asparagus. A special on chicken ($16), however, included mashed potatoes, real giblet-mushroom gravy, and vegetables, as well as salad. And, of course, there is the “God salad” ($11; “lesser god salad”/$5), which is not a mélange of pagan deities for the delectation of cafeteria Celts, but rather a garden salad plus steak tips, egg, sliced beets, and more. And it’s very nicely dressed.
River Gods doesn’t offer dessert — it’s a bar, after all — but it does serve quite a variety of drinks. I didn’t see a lot of wine, but a Black and Tan ($4.25) allowed me to test not only the Guinness (clean and heady) but also the mixed-in lager (another whistle-clean tap).
Service is surprisingly good, not only because the servers have to be agile to get around the odd furniture in the crowded room, but also because the kitchen is so small. Some dishes are permutations of one another, but the staff still has to fry, grill, simmer, and assemble in a coordinated fashion, all of which it managed well on a crowded weekend night. River Gods is quite popular with several types of people, so it’s probably always crowded. A limited menu (including those French fries!) is served until 1 am.
Music starts at about 9 pm, and there is a varied line-up, from roots to electronic experiments.