Gambling on a New Menu

When I step into Casino Aztar’s new restaurant the Riverside Cookery, I feel like I am stepping into Memaw’s kitchen. Memaw is my fictional Southern grandmother who wears muumuus and always opens her house for hearty helpings of comfort food. At Riverside Cookery, it isn’t the kitchen décor throughout the restaurant that screamed Southern hospitality, nor the floor-to-ceiling windows that welcomed onlookers in the Hoosiers Lounge, but mostly, it was the treats awaiting me after ordering.

The menu from the restaurant, launched in August, brings meals from Memphis to a New Orleans Mardi Gras party. The shrimp fra diavlo (the devil’s shrimp), served with spinach fettuccini, sparkles in a spicy marinated sauce. The Delta dinner is a plate of catfish fillets and Cajun shrimp. Louisiana made the menu with Cajun delicacies including deep-fried catfish dipped in beer batter and the Bayou burger topped with hot sauce and an avocado dressing. Michael Bastin, food and beverage director at Casino Aztar, says it’s “as down south as you can get.”

The dishes come from Bastin, who has been in the restaurant business for 38 years and with the casino for five. For months he experimented with a menu for a new restaurant. The experiments were themed buffets offered on Fridays and Saturdays at the casino’s Temptations Buffet. Patrons chose between Italian, Mexican, German, and home-style food. Their reviews decided the home-style dishes were the biggest hit, but instead of focusing on Evansville favorites, Bastin also wanted to take locals on a journey down the Ohio and the Mississippi rivers.

The endeavor debuted in the former Corky’s BBQ & Ribs inside the casino’s pavilion across from Max & Erma’s. It is one of many changes underway including new slot machines, a skywalk to connect the swanky Le Merigot Hotel to the riverboat casino, and an improved heating and cooling system to help rid the smoke from cigarette-enthusiastic patrons.
The changes come after a challenging time for the casino. Just after casino officials debuted their last major venture — The District, an entertainment plaza featuring Ri Ra Irish Pub & Restaurant and Le Merigot Hotel — in 2006, a new casino owner made massive layoffs throughout his acquired properties. Political figures blasted his leadership. After a bankruptcy and another ownership change, casino officials look ready for progress.

For now, the hype is inside the casino’s latest addition where kitchen appliances dot the restaurant as if the space is the set of a cooking show. Pots and pans hang on a rack over the bar, toasters and eating utensils pose as models in the multiple paintings along the walls, and a wooden spoon underlines “Cookery” in the restaurant’s logo. That spoon was carried over to the menu, distinguishing Riverside Cookery’s authentic dishes from the more common plates.

On the day after the restaurant’s grand opening, I dove into a mix of both. My starter was a hodgepodge of breaded mushrooms, onion rings, zucchini, chicken livers, and fried pickles. It was a Fall Festival-meets-tavern fare. Then, I eyeballed my main course, the Beale Street sampler ($18). I looked at it in pieces. The sheer volume was a carnivore’s delight. I am surprised the plate could support the weight of a 4-ounce smoked sausage, 3-ounce beef brisket, 3-ounce pulled pork, 4-ounce barbecue chicken, and two ounces of beef barbecue ribs. That’s 16 ounces — or one pound — of meat smothered in a tangy barbecue sauce and drizzled with confetti of red, green, and yellow peppers. I thought I had died and gone to Memphis.
A to-go box was requested before a dent was made in my meal (not sure I ever made one) in preparation of lunch the following day. And dinner. And then the day after that.

Riverside Cookery

Location: Casino Aztar Pavilion, 421 N.W. Riverside Drive • Phone: 812-433-4227 • Hours: Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun.-Thurs., until 11 p.m. Fri.-Sat. • Adult Beverages: Yes • Prices: $8-$18 • Reservations: Yes, but not necessary • Payment: Major credit cards accepted.

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