South by South: River Twice Reviewed
At River Twice, New Americanism from South Texas comes to South Philly.
It would be easy to overlook River Twice.
Not due to the location. It has prime placement in the old Izumi space on East Passyunk, right on the square. It has a big sign, lots of foot traffic, warm lights glowing in big windows.
But the space itself is spare and sophisticated like a Scandinavian living room, with a place for everything and everything in its place. Stacks of spices and dry ingredients in identical clear boxes. Gleaming stainless. Sand-colored linen. Tables with hidden drawers for silverware. The menu is seasonal, regional New Americanism — all words that have been stripped of meaning in the last few years. And the place is small. Three parties can make it feel crowded. Ten might be a full house.
River Twice is built for care, precision and control. Chef Randy Rucker (here from Texas, with a James Beard nom behind him) can see every table from his post at the pass. His open kitchen isn’t sequestered; it’s a functioning piece of architecture, bulging out in a way that shapes the flow of the dining room and makes its counter seats into a de facto chef’s table.
He shaves the corned short rib thin, lays it over butter-soaked Texas toast from Machine Shop Boulangerie, then tops it with butter beans “escabeche.” I watched a sous-chef place and re-place the garniture on a plate of scallops with sunchokes five times, bumping it with the knuckle of his thumb until it lay just right. Rucker’s bread dumplings are based on a recipe from his mother, Bootsie. His come with golden oyster mushrooms, shaved radish, black truffle, a kombu dashi. A bit different from Mom’s? Sure. But he still says hers are better.
I hit River Twice during a brief window in which they had bluefin tuna on the menu, perfectly seared around the edges, painted with coffee shoyu, and topped with a gentle fold of royal trumpet mushroom. I didn’t love it. The textural friction between the mushroom and the tender flesh of the tuna was strange. The coffee was a bare whisper in the background. But it was only an unsuccessful dish by comparison, suffering for having a balance that was three degrees away from true. Three degrees less ideal than the impossibly light honeynut squash and brown butter puree that came in spoon-shaped quenelles decorating the spruce-smoked pork loin with red pepper-spiked broccoli.
Rucker came by, asked what I thought. I told him how crazy-good the squash puree was.
“All thanks to the ingredients,” he said, then leaned over, put a hand up to his mouth, and whispered: “I just try not to fuck ’em up.”
Which is, perhaps, the greater wisdom at work here, because with that ever-changing menu and a liquor license in the works, River Twice has all the right ingredients to be a phenomenal restaurant.
And all Rucker has to do is not fuck ’em up.
3 Stars — Come from anywhere in the region
0 stars: stay away
★: come if you have no other options
★★: come if you’re in the neighborhood
★★★: come from anywhere in the region
★★★★: come from anywhere in the country