Restaurant Review: Rive Bistro, Westport

 
Grilled salmon with silky potato purée is one of the treats you'll find on Rive Bistro's menu.

Grilled salmon with silky potato purée is one of the treats you'll find on Rive Bistro's menu.

Tom McGovern

★★★ [Superior]

Full disclosure: I am in love with French bistro cooking. Not just the romance of it but the food itself, which is among the best home cooking in the world. Prepared with passion by a good French chef, it’s comfort food that comforts. It doesn’t shock or bite, its aim being not to impress but to promote a warm, friendly atmosphere conducive to conviviality and to lift the spirit with a dash of joie de vivre. Steak frites, moules Provençal, croque monsieur, duck and foie gras sausage. Ooh la la.

One of my favorites was Bistro des Amis in Westport, which flourished for a decade before it closed in 2001 when Eric Sierra, the chef/owner, left to open Il Palio, an Italian restaurant in Shelton. Italian? With a French chef? No good can come of this, I thought, but I was wrong. Il Palio was a hit. I liked it but it wasn’t the French bistro I longed for.

Years passed. Fast-forward to April 1, 2013, when the unexpected occurred. Sierra came back to Westport and opened a French bistro called Rive in a riverfront building that over the years has housed a raft of restaurants, most recently River House Tavern. Owned for a decade by investment banker Kevin Burns, none of these restaurants really took off. People came for the view and the raffish bar scene—not for the food. The barflies didn’t care and the foodies didn’t come back. What was needed has now been supplied—a talented, experienced professional chef/owner and restaurateur. One look and the difference is apparent. Cleverly transforming the mundane space, Sierra and business partner Vivi Torres have created a chic urban-style bistro that has contemporary freshness and vitality but is at heart true to the bistro tradition of hearty food and a warm, friendly atmosphere.

The big draw remains a fabulous view of the Saugatuck River—from a wraparound wall of windows in the dining room and a 50-seat café-style patio so close to the river you can stroll out and run your fingers through the water. With four slips at a public dock providing access to the restaurant, you can even come by boat.

But as history has proved, it takes more than a room with a view. The human element is the make-or-break factor in restaurant success, and when I popped in during the renovation, things were looking good in that direction, too. Chef Sierra and Torres were always there—schooling the staff, talking to suppliers, consulting a lighting expert who came out from New York City (note the glowing alabaster urns on a shelf above the fireplace). When the restaurant opened and I returned with friends, the pervasive feeling was that we were in good hands.

The menu offered what French bistros have always provided—deeply satisfying down-to-earth food with inimitable Gallic flair. Small plates (petite assiettes) under $20, entrées under $30. We ordered the duck and foie gras sausage for $14 and the mousse de foie gras for $15. With both on offer we felt like millionaires. The hearty country-French style sausage arrived with warm green-lentil salad, and the mousse, a sybaritic slab of velvety richness, was adorned with a wafer of brioche toast and a bling of fig jam.

Duck confit with fingerling potatoes, mushrooms and frisée pleased me less. The duck was dry and tough and the vegetables and salad were unexciting. But mini lobster rolls, in a nod to New England cuisine, brought us back to luscious. Lots of sweet, tender lobster meat, wonderful French mayonnaise and the bitter-crunch of celeriac slaw for balance. Rive’s frisée aux lardons reminded us how good this classic French salad can be. Prickly greens, lardons, croutons, warm bacon vinaigrette and, trembling on top, a perfect poached egg.

Grilled salmon, a gorgeous center cut perfectly grilled, was embellished with dill sauce, sautéed kale, yellow peppers and potato purée.

The menu specials for the day were too good to resist—grilled shrimp as an appetizer and a veal chop entrée. The shrimp were lovely and, as always, hard to describe. Firm, but not cottony, tasting at once briny and sweet. Three pink-tinged beauties on a plate with swirls of avocado purée. The veal chop was high, wide and handsome, an impressive hunk of tender, juicy meat slathered with creamy wild-mushroom sauce. The veal was lean and healthily balanced with paper-thin slices of steamed summer squash. Portions were moderate and dessert was definitely to be considered.

Like a traditional bistro, Rive leaves rococo pastry confections to a bakery and makes its own yummy home-style desserts: Apple tarte, pain perdu, vanilla-scented crème brûlée. Warm chocolate cake was molten madness. Homemade coconut ice cream with chewy bits of coconut to accent the flavor. But for this literary major, poet and romantic, nothing would do but a plate of madeleines, the soft, French cookies immortalized by Marcel Proust when he wrote about his mother sending him out for those “squat, plump little cakes called ‘petite Madeleines’ which look as if they had been molded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell.” Rive serves freshly baked authentic Madeleines de Dax with a dark chocolate sauce to dip them in. Proust dipped his in tea. I savored mine plain as I did years ago at a sidewalk café in front of a pâtisserie in Montmartre.
 

Rive Bistro
299 Riverside Ave., Westport, 203/557-8049, rivebistro.com
Monday through Thursday 11:30 to 9, Friday and Saturday till10:30, Sunday till 9. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $8 to $16, sandwiches $12 to $18, entrées $21 to $32, desserts $9.
 

Restaurant Review: Rive Bistro, Westport

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