I have to admit, when I heard that a new French restaurant was opening in Westport, my assumptions were that it would be pretentious, ridiculously over-priced, and a snooze-fest.
Happily, I was wrong on all accounts. (I have to remind myself what happens when assumptions are made.)
Located on the west bank of the Saugatuck River, Rive opened in April at the former site of the River House restaurant. The co-owner and chef is Eric Sierra, whom many will remember from Bistro des Amis, which he operated from 1991 to 2000, and Shelton's Il Palio.
The interior of the restaurant has been renovated to give it an updated bistro feel. There are small tables in front of a stone fireplace, leather banquettes looking out over the river, a large outdoor patio and a comfortable bar area.
"Not too many places are doing classical French food," said Sierra, explaining his concept for the restaurant.
"People are looking for foie gras, steak tartare, moules (mussels)."
If you're even just the tiniest bit familiar with French food, the menu is comfortable. Starters include familiar dishes such as garlic-y escargot, buttery foie gras served with brioche toast and fig marmalade, a smoky white bean stew with grilled shrimp (the secret ingredient is duck fat), and a beautiful charcuterie board with jambon, pate and saucisson.
There are several soups and salads available, including a traditional Salad Niçoise with fresh seared tuna and Frisee au Lardon, featuring a soft poached egg, warm bacon vinaigrette and crouton.
But it was the roasted beet salad that really stood out. More and more, beet salads have been finding their way onto menus, but often the beets are cut into chunks. In this version, the beets were sliced wafer-thin. They almost appeared to be slices of beef carpaccio. The beets were paired with nutty mache, tart goat cheese and a light walnut vinaigrette. ("I use French walnut oil, of course," Sierra said.) The result is a salad that is light, flavorful and absent of that typical "dirty" beet flavor, which some people -- not me -- enjoy.
There are an array of sandwiches on the menu, including lamb sausage with sauteed onions, bell peppers and harissa aioli and a fresh lobster roll, and then there are the entrees.
Oh, the entrees. It's not an easy decision to make. There's the duck confit, a plump leg that's been seasoned and cooked in its own fat, resulting in tender, juicy meat.
Moules Frites Provençale are mussels steamed in garlic, tomato, fresh herbs and Pernod, which gives them a fragrant, anise flavor. They're served, of course, with crispy, golden French fries. I'm a sucker for anything with sauce, so the Steak Frites was calling my name.
The grilled New York strip is served with herb garlic butter, black pepper sauce or Roquefort sauce. I say ask for them all. One is better than the next.
My favorite entree, however, was perhaps the simplest. Grilled salmon was served on a mound of sauteed kale, along with a yellow pepper dill sauce and a potato puree. The fish had a crispy sear and was moist and flavorful. The kale, sauteed with garlic and olive oil, was a nice change from the usual spinach and the creamy potatoes were a nice contrast.
The only entree that gave me pause was the Seafood Parmentier. Described as a "French seafood shepherd's pie," the casserole contained cod, mussels, clams and shrimp in a spiced-up bechamel. It was delicious, but richer than Bill Gates. I can't imagine having the wherewithal to actually eat an entire dish.
If you save room for dessert--and I suggest you do -- you'll be forced to choose between things like a buttery apple tarte tatin or soft, spongey Madeleines with chocolate sauce.
There's no question that the menu at Rive is classic French. It's not about novelty or innovation. "I just like food," Sierra said. "I don't want to be a celebrity. I just want to make people happy."
Patti Woods is a freelance writer. Contact her at email@example.com.
299 Riverside Ave., Westport
203-557-8049 / www.rivebistro.com
What to try: Foie gras ($16); charcuterie board ($14); roasted beet salad ($12); grilled salmon ($24); Moule Frites Provencale ($22).