Restaurant Review: River Tavern, Chester
A quiet moment at River Tavern before the crowds descend.
Michelle Parr Paulson
★★½ [Very Good-Superior]
Farm-to-table fruits and vegetables, sustainable seafood and humanely raised, hormone-free meat and poultry, once the concern of a few, is now passionately espoused by enough of the general public to constitute a green revolution in restaurant dining.
Like most revolutions, there is legend and lore and even a bit of romance about it, which brings us to a small, quaint town on the Connecticut River, where Jonathan Rapp, chef-owner of River Tavern, fired one of the first salvos in the save-Connecticut-farms foray.
He did it with Yankee ingenuity, help from likeminded neighbors and friends and considerable get-up-and-go. He simply loaded a kitchen stove onto his bright red 1955 Ford F600 flatbed truck, parked in a cornfield and cooked a delicious locally grown meal for guests at a fund-raising, consciousness-raising dinner to support local agriculture. The event sparked “Dinners At The Farm,” the popular summertime series of benefit dinners involving more and more farms and getting better each year.
But eating is believing and I hadn’t dined at River Tavern itself for years—which explains the fact that on a recent Tuesday evening I was strolling down Chester’s main street to sample what Jonathan Rapp and his team are up to.
River Tavern honors the quaintness of its location with an exterior that looks like what it is—a storefront in a 19th-century building. Inside, it reimagines the word Tavern to resemble a stylish contemporary art gallery on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Indeed, much of the artwork is by Sol Lewitt, who lived in Chester for much of his life. Who says you can’t have fun with food and art? Not me, I thought, when I arrived 10 or 15 minutes before my friends and was graciously led through the bustling bar and seated in the equally crowded dining room. Facing a window wall overlooking Pattaconk Brook, with the open kitchen on my right, I had plenty to look at while I waited.
When my friends arrived, we ordered guacamole and chips for the table. Made to order with freshly peeled, perfectly ripe avocados, a hint of heat, a wisp of cilantro, each flavor nuance precisely tuned to contribute but not dominate, this was a guacamole to remember and come back for. Happily, there was a heaping bowl of dip and the thin crisp-toasted pita chips were piled high.
Generous portions, we were to discover as our meal progressed, are one of River Tavern’s heartwarming features. Everything about the place seems to say: Why skimp, when earth’s bounty in all its green-gold glory waits to be picked, peeled, sliced, chopped and cooked creatively? River Tavern’s grilled prime strip steak, for example, wowed us with its size, scent and sizzle when it arrived atop a jewel-bright salad of heirloom tomatoes and mozzarella, basil pesto and grilled garlic croutons.
Of course, there are light bites for light eaters as well: A duet of marinated Gaetas, the pearl of Italian black olives, and vivid green Castelvetranos, their color and flavor complementing each other. Half a dozen raw oysters with cocktail sauce. A single ear of fresh corn, perfectly grilled, served solo on a small plate. There are two menus to choose from at River Tavern—a bar menu and a dining room menu, but wherever you sit, you can order from either one. We sampled both.
From the bar menu, I chose and loved a salad of local greens, blueberries, soft artisanal cheese, almonds and poppy-seed buttermilk dressing. Both menus are revised daily to reflect the “pick of the field” and the catch of the day. As a result, the Atlantic swordfish we ordered was a triumph of fresh taste and texture. But in this instance, generosity almost undid art by way of embellishing the fish with an overabundance of, well, everything. Almost engulfed in fregula, local greens and olive-poached cherry tomatoes, the noble fish sailed in on a surfboard of grilled eggplant. The accoutrements were good but the fish would have been better without. Grilled skate, a more delicate fish, was slightly overcooked and almost overwhelmed with lobster sauce, tomato and bacon bread crumbs. But everything worked together to enhance a buttermilk-fried chicken leg—corn bread, stewed black beans and salsa verdi. The South rides again!
An interesting dish, especially for vegetarians, was listed as a “Main” on the bar menu and turned out to be a huge, ultralight frittata topped with local vegetables and cheddar cheese, served with fresh mixed greens.
The list of desserts, all made in in the kitchen, is short and choice and changes frequently. We were in luck. Bittersweet chocolate soufflé topped the list the night we were there. We ordered it at the start of our meal as our waitress advised us to do because it was baked to order and entailed a 20-minute wait.
When it was time for dessert though, it took a long time to arrive. Perhaps we expected too much, but the long-awaited soufflé was disappointing, a whiff of fluffy meringue above half a cup of chocolate sauce. Underbaked or deliberate? Call it a matter of taste. Warm date pudding, however, took the cake. Rich, dense and heady with dark rum caramel sauce, it reminded me of desserts served at Chowning’s Tavern on Duke of Gloucester Street in Colonial Williamsburg, where I lived a long time ago. A taste of history is never amiss.
All told, River Tavern is a pioneer, still forging ahead, showing the world how it should be done. The chefs cook with a light and enlightened hand. Eschewing rich sauces, gobs of butter or a lot of deep-frying, they respect the integrity of product, and encourage each natural ingredient to sing out loud and clear, solo or together in close harmony. As for my quibble about overdressed swordfish and skate, most of us could use a few more veggies, whole grains, blueberries, almonds and local greens—along with wholesome meat and fish—especially when they taste great. There’s also much to be said for dining in a charming town, in the midst of a lively, like-minded crowd.
23 Main St., Chester, 860/526-9417, rivertavernrestaurant.com
Lunch Monday through Thursday and Sunday 11:30 to 2:30. Dinner Monday through Thursday 5 to 9:30, Friday and Saturday till 10:30, Sunday 4:30 to 9. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $5 to $14, entrées $12 to $28, desserts $6 to $12.
Restaurant Review: River Tavern, Chester