Restaurant Review - On the River goes under the sea

Ray's on the River takes on American-style seafood

As culinary chops go, having a reputation as a Sunday brunch buffet spot is kind of like being voted "most congenial" or "best dancer." It's no ticket to Bobby Flay's "FoodNation." But that's how most Atlantans know Ray's on the River — that sprawling, comfortable place with the view where you can take Mom on Easter. It's the place with the omelet station and the make-your-own ice cream sundaes.

Until recently, Ray's made its living the other six days of the week with a familiar-looking modern American menu. Now they've moved into the upscale seafood line, which, in a landlocked city that already sports several successful such restaurants, would seem a shaky gambit. But almost in spite of itself, Ray's latest incarnation hits on (nearly) all cylinders. Fish is fresh and skillfully prepared. Service is as good as any you'll find around town. The setting confers upon it the status of a modest romantic venture. It's very nearly a serious destination.

Of course, there are some qualifications. In spite of a solid menu, the offerings are decidedly less exotic than at counterparts Atlanta Fish Market or Fishbone. And the feel of the space itself — in a town where restaurateurs routinely drop millions on architectural and design flourishes — feels decidedly dated. A stuffed marlin and a large, modestly populated aquarium near the host stand emphasize the seafood-house conversion. And an impressive-looking glassed-in wine room and a scrupulously well-tended raw bar compete with ho-hum carpet and cheapo- feeling stemware.

This aside, what should earn Ray's a spot on your to-be- visited list is the food. Ray's features an attractive, large menu, modern seafood house format minus the Asian/sushi bar appendages (a starter of seared tuna tataki, $9.95, is the single exception). American flavors dominate. Starters like peel-and-eat shrimp (1/4 pound $5.50, 1/2 pound $10.50) or a classic like oysters Rockefeller ($8.50) pair naturally with the selection of raw American and Canadian oysters ($1.75 a piece, $9 for a half-dozen), or a grilled lobster Cobb salad with blue cheese, avocado and bacon ($15.95). The same goes for seasonally upgraded entrees like Virginia soft-shell crabs ($20.95), wild sockeye salmon from Alaska ($23.95) and regular menu items like blackened mahi mahi ($18.95) or sun corn-crusted rainbow trout ($14.95).

Fried clam strips ($5.95) are a guilty pleasure that make a nice alternative to calamari. Perfectly breaded and fried, and served with a fresh-tasting tartar sauce full of chives and tarragon, they're an understated hit that makes an ideal jumping-off point for a night of American seafood house flavors.

Likewise the crispy oyster and spinach salad ($6.75). It's a sized-for-sharing powerhouse combination of plump, crispy fried oysters, lightly wilted spinach, red onions and blue cheese. New Orleans barbecue shrimp ($8.95) matches a half-dozen or so moist, nicely cooked shrimp with an insanely rich Creole-accented butter sauce and a good-sized hunk of toasted garlic bread. It's faithful to its over-the-top, rich-as-hell Big Easy roots, to the point where only a faltering sense of decorum prevents you from tucking a napkin into your shirt and sopping up every last bit of the sauce.

Soups, seemingly the only big downside here, feel like an afterthought. The lobster bisque ($3.95 cup, $5.95 bowl) is drearily thick and bitter; the gumbo ($2.95 cup, $4.25 bowl) is sludgy and one-note spicy.

Entrees return you to the modest high notes of the starters. Fried foods come with french fries and coleslaw. Other entrees, including the seasonal fish and seafood specialties, are usually served with mashed potatoes and thin green beans. Side dishes like these don't earn Ray's points for novelty, but they are tasty. Chargrilled wild sockeye salmon ($23.95) is slightly overcooked but nonetheless quite moist and certainly worth a try if you haven't had it before.

Horseradish-crusted black grouper ($22.95) is moist, flaky and served in a huge portion. A light application of orange vinaigrette and reduced balsamic vinegar looks nice, but detracts from the flavor of the dish. A simple olive oil and lemon emulsion would function far better. Crab-stuffed flounder ($16.95) topped with Mornay sauce (think white sauce lightly thickened with cheese) captures the style of an old-school seafood dish minus the heaviness.

Desserts are extravagant, ridiculous things that should only be ordered if you've had an exceptionally bad day. You'll find standards like a creme brûlee with fresh berries ($5.95) and a chocolate velvet cake ($5.25), as well as an ultra-sweet slab of Key lime pie with a macadamia nut crust ($4.95). A fudge brownie sundae ($6.25), with a giant scoop of vanilla ice cream, multiple sauces, caramelized bananas, toasted walnuts and anemic, woody-tasting strawberries, perversely draws you back for a long series of last bites. "Don't worry," your server says, "it's good for you."??