Photo by Matt Miller.

One of the most important things for any restaurant, in my opinion, is the ambiance. Ambiance is more than décor alone, it’s a gestalt that’s every bit as important to the dining experience as salt and acid.

If all you remember about a place is that every song played reminded you of great moments in your life, you’re going to love that restaurant without the slightest memory of the food. That’s the power of ambiance.

Understated ambiance can lower your expectations, making good seem a little better. Overstated ambiance can raise expectations making decent food fail because it under-delivered.

Risü strikes that balance perfectly because, while you can sit on the patio and look out at the beautifully landscaped flower garden lining the cresting wave of Rainbow Bridge, you’re still sitting between the back of two buildings beside a convention center, technically making this walkway an ally.

This adds to the charm.

Out of sight of busy Ocean Boulevard, and two stories above a backstreet picturesquely named Seaside Way, you feel as if you’re in the know. Like you’ve discovered this locals-only hideaway in the heart of Downtown where the ambiance is like a photo filter that makes the disheveled seem camera-ready.

The name Risü is a little confusing. It means smile if you speak Latin, but if you speak Japanese it means squirrel. The umlaut over the U doesn’t exist in Latin or Japanese, but in German would be pronounced eew, as in yuck. Fortunately, here it’s meant to represent two eyes over a mouth, making a nose-free smiley face.

Cilantro Lime Asparagus ($13)

The end of February and early March signifies the beginning of asparagus season, which will run into June, and peak in late April, which is why I ordered this dish.

Cilantro lime asparagus. Photo by Matt Miller.

The dozen or so sprigs of asparagus, unfortunately, tasted as if they had been cooked off the day before and had been sitting in the cooler. Fresh and crisp aren’t words I would use to describe this seasonal vegetable, but the drizzling of cilantro oil, a healthy kick of lime, and a generous sprinkling of Parmesan brought all the flavors together.

For $13 I might not order it again, but if the good folks at Risü were to use freshly sautéed asparagus it’s easy to see that the flavors could be transformed into something more noteworthy for the price.

The Crispy Curry Salmon Wrap ($17)

I like ordering salmon off of menus. Anyone can make a burger or a flatbread, but it’s so easy to overcook salmon, so I find it’s a great test subject. If a cook can do salmon in a wrap, then a burger is going to be a no-brainer.

While the blend of curry battered salmon, dill pickle tartar sauce, and pickled Fresno chili described on the menu wasn’t exactly what was delivered, it was still not without redeeming qualities.

Crispy curry salmon wrap. Photo by Matt Miller.

The salmon was truly moist and succulent, cooked perfectly. It helps that the fish was dredged in curry-infused batter and deep-fried, but it doesn’t come off as even the slightest bit oily.

A healthy portion of salmon is wrapped in a chewy fresh tortilla with greens, raw red onions, and a slice of fresh-ish tomato which truly has no place in there, as it only takes away from the dish making it seem soggy. Ask them to hold the tomato. If there was dill pickle tartar sauce, then it was completely flavorless and added nothing, which is probably good since tartar sauce and curry aren’t exactly a magical flavor combo. The pickled Fresno chili was replaced by raw red jalapeño, but it complemented well with a bright kick that was both unexpected, and enjoyable.

Banh Mi Sliders – four to an order ($17)

Soy marinated seared tofu, pickled daikon and carrot, cilantro, cucumber and “umami sauce” on a Hawaiian bun.

This was by far the last dish to arrive, even though everything was ordered at the same time.

First off, what is “umami sauce?” I have no idea because it was left off these sliders.

The soy-marinade offers some umami, I guess, but that’s it.

To get technical for a moment: umami is a building of free glutamate, inosinic acid, and guanylic acid coming from aged, dried, and concentrated proteins and fungi—nothing like that going on here.

Banh Mi sliders. Photo by Matt Miller

The sliders were however clean and sweet. Bursts of crispy freshness from the cilantro, a hued umami chew from the glazed and seared tofu, and an easy to enjoy crunch from the pickled radish and carrot.

I would recommend the sliders, but order them easy on the pickled root vegetables. The shreds aren’t so much pickled as “quick pickled” in vinegar and sugar. The Hawaiian bun is sweet enough, the sugar added to the pickling brine is just a little too sweet and fights the much-needed acidity that would otherwise perfectly balance out the King’s Hawaiian style bun.

Overall, Risü is a wonderful place to grab happy hour and a lazy bite of enjoyable ambiance.

Cost: $$

Two people can eat for under $100 (with cocktails)

Vibe: Local and welcoming.

Go-to Dish: Crispy Curry Salmon Wrap ($17).

Drinks: Pretty basic beer and wine list, as well as full liquor offering house cocktails, as well as old favorites.

Risü is at 207 E. Seaside Way; Instagram: @risu_lb

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