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River Palm Terrace
209 Ramapo Valley Road
Mahwah, Bergen County, New Jersey
(201) 529-1111

By The Artful Diner
Special to nj.com

On one occasion, you may be greeted by a young, perky, terribly attractive blond young woman whose casually tasteful but provocative attire is certain to elicit admiring glances from the male of the species; on another, a slightly more mature but equally alluring hostess will -- unless your hormones are in stasis -- dazzle the eye with her delightfully daring décolletage. Both of these charming ladies, I should hasten to add, seem entirely appropriate to the often tempestuous testosterone transfused terrain of an all-American steakhouse. In any event, both are most pleasant and accommodating and will, according to your wishes, escort you directly to table or point you toward the bar/lounge for the pleasantries of a preprandial libation.

And this latter option would surely make a suitable starting point for your evening, as the bar is cozy, convivial, and boasts a plethora of rustic wood and brick, etched-glass panels, grand piano and -- like the dining areas -- picturesque depictions of the wild, wild West. The only downer is that the service area at the far end of the bar serves as a gathering place for members of the staff when not attending to their various and sundry duties. Here, with boisterous enthusiasm, are discussed the latest baseball standings, dating and mating rituals, and the apparent capricious whims of management's scheduling policies. Needless to say, this is all very distracting to patrons in search of a quiet cocktail and intimate conversation.

Still, if you can tune out the staff's vociferous barrage of inane chatter, there are certain oenological rewards to be had. By the glass, the Campanile Pinot Grigio ($7.25) and Clos du Bois Chardonnay ($8.50) are both highly recommended. Among the reds, the Crosspoint Pinot Noir ($8.25) displays an agreeable touch of elegance and the Estancia Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon ($10.00) is quite suitable for those who prefer a bit more body. And be sure to peruse the award-winning wine list: For those contemplating beef, the 2001 Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon ($65.00) is exceptional; and the 2003 La Scolca Black Label Gavi di Gavi ($63.00) makes a marvelous accompaniment for a great variety of seafood.

When you're ready to adjourn to table, bear in mind that, while the bar/lounge is exceedingly comfortable, the main dining area is not nearly so posh as accommodations to be found in more upscale bovine establishments. The room is quite unpretentious; in point of fact, it bears an uncanny resemblance to a rustic saloon. One expects Marshall Dillon and Miss Kitty to come strolling in at any moment.

And the high-ceilinged space is boisterous and bustling. What with carts bearing tubs of dirty dishes clunking along the hardwood floor, the constant arranging -- and rearranging -- of tables and chairs, the restless comings and goings of carnivorous hordes, and the spirited verbal byplay on the part of members of the staff, the frenetic ambulation can become unnerving. Despite this apparent state of organized confusion, however -- and the complaints from other reviewers regarding sporadic service -- I have always found the members of the wait staff here to be, if not finely polished, at least competent and professional in the timely fulfillment of their appointed tasks. Still, if you desire a respite from some (but certainly not all) of the general hubbub, prevail upon the hostess to seat you in one of the smaller side rooms... and hope for the best.

The regular menu is a straightforward affair highlighting the restaurant's USDA prime beef, which is aged on the premises, and a number of permanent appetizers, potatoes & vegetables, and salads. There is also a daily printed insert listing items (with prices) designed to appeal to seafood lovers as well as carnivores with more adventurous palates. By any stretch of the imagination, an evening at River Palm Terrace is NOT a cheap date; but since a house salad and choice of French fries, baked Idaho potato, or rice are included with the entrée -- and are usually additional luxuries at more hoity-toity steakhouses -- the sticker shock may be somewhat assuaged.

Among the appetizers, the Maryland jumbo lump crabmeat cocktail ($16.95) is clearly the star of the show. A copious mound of sweet, succulent nuggets is set on a bed of radicchio and garnished with ramekins of spicy cocktail sauce and horseradish. A fabulous starter. As are the grilled tender-right-down-to-the-stem artichoke hearts accompanied by pristinely fresh mâche and drizzles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar ($11.95).

The presentation of fried calamari with fresh tomato-basil sauce ($10.95) is also quite good. The squid is lightly breaded, perfectly cooked, and surprisingly tender. The Maryland crab cakes ($14.95), on the other hand, are overpriced and suffer from a surfeit of filler. They resemble potato croquettes, which isn't at all surprising, as they contain infinitely more whipped potato than they do crab. Although nicely seasoned with green onions and dash of pimento, at these elevated tariffs, one expects a good deal more crustacean for the money.

And speaking of unreasonable monetary machinations... nothing beats the hot seafood platter for two, which weighs in at a whopping $32.50. Consisting of two of the aforementioned potato-crab croquettes, mountain of calamari, and six rubbery, scorched clams casino, it simply isn't worth the hefty price tag.

The Caesar salad ($6.95) also leaves a great deal to be desired. The romaine suffers from a severe case of battle fatigue, the anchovy-tinged dressing is slightly off tasting, Parmesan cheese is conspicuous by its absence, and the croutons are stale. Hardly inspiring. Much preferred is the freebie house salad. Chopped lettuces, tomato, cucumber, and onions are tossed with a light vinaigrette in a faux wooden bowl by your server and then plated for individual diners. A silver gravy boat of crumbled blue cheese adds to the festivities. Very nice, indeed.

Like the appetizers, entrées have their ups and downs. The grilled rib eye steak ($33.95) is beautifully textured, alive with flavor, and finds a perfect complement in a topping of earthy Gorgonzola cheese. The presentation of grilled medallions of filet mignon ($28.95), four petite segments surrounding an epicenter of mashed potatoes and tiara of sautéed spinach, sounds like a good idea -- especially since the potatoes are positively hedonistic and the obviously fresh greenery is tinged with garlic -- but the medallions lack the velvety texture so characteristic of this cut of meat and are decidedly fatty of countenance.

If you decide to go the filet mignon route, stick with the infinitely superior prime butcher cut ($32.95). And if your wallet is up to the challenge, you might also consider the prodigious prime porterhouse for two ($74.00). Also available are the prime T-bone for one ($37.00) and hefty veal chop ($28.95).

Should you be contemplating finny fare, the salmon ($28.95) is excellent. This fish is cooked through, precisely as ordered, topped with a golden brown shredded potato crust, and finished with a delicate but assertive champagne mustard sauce. Conversely, the red snapper "oreganato" ($28.95), while obviously of the highest quality and at the peak of good health, is the unfortunate victim of both over breading and over seasoning.

When it comes to the aforementioned freebie starches, the Idaho baked potato is just that, a baked potato; the rice is dry and tasteless; but the French fries are marvelous. Served up family-style in mountainous portions, they are delightfully crisp and incredibly addictive. The best spuds I've sampled in a long, long time.

With regard to side orders: The jumbo-cut onion rings ($4.95) are fabulous... ditto the homemade mashed potatoes ($5.95) and fresh leaf spinach sautéed with garlic and olive oil ($6.95). Conversely, the steamed asparagus spears ($7.95) are in desperate need of a jolt of butter and/or seasoning; and as it cools, the creamed spinach ($4.95) acquires the viscosity of molasses in bleak midwinter.

Desserts, should your peristaltic functions be up to the challenge, are a cut above. Of those made on the premises, I would highly recommend the first-rate Florida Key lime pie ($8.95), creamy cheesecake ($7.95), and scrumptious individual apple pie with cinnamon ice cream and chocolate sauce ($8.95). And, although it is trucked in from off campus, the divinely decadent chocolate mud pie ($7.95) -- a long-standing establishment tradition -- is a chocoholic's dream come true.

Espresso ($3.25 single/$5.50 double) is also quite good. But if you really want to go out in style, settle back with a taste of 25-year-old McCallan single malt ($45.00) or, better still -- and definitely not for the faint of pocketbook -- the Remy Louis XIII ($140.00).

Like most restaurants, the River Palm Terrace, which also sports locations in Edgewater and Fairlawn, has its share of liabilities as well as assets: It is not as posh or upscale as a Ruth's Chris or Morton's, for example; the main dining area is quite noisy; and rambunctious progeny appear to be everywhere present. Its confines, in my opinion, are infinitely better suited to family and group gatherings than to romantic repasts à deux.

Take these above admonitions to heart and a visit to Mahwah's River Palm Terrace will not prove a disappointment.

Cuisine: Steak and Seafood
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Fri, 12:00 noon - 3:00 p.m.; Dinner: Mon - Thurs, 3:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Fri, 3:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.; Sat, 4:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.; Sun, 4:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking is permitted in the bar/lounge only.
Reservations: Recommended
Parking: Valet
Alcohol: License; extensive wine list
Price: Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Web site: http://www.riverpalm.com.

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