299 Riverside Ave., Westport, (203) 557-8049, rivebistro.com
Chef Eric Sierra says he's a classic French chef. In the way of classic French chefs, he doesn't focus on creativity. The menu at Rive Bistro, the four-month-old restaurant on the Saugatuck River in Westport (the former River House Tavern) is thoroughly French – yet there are plenty of touches that reveal Sierra's individuality, and his long career in Fairfield County.
A native of Biarritz in the southwest of France, he opened Bistro des Amis in Westport in 1991 and served French bistro food there until 2001. Then he opened Il Palio, a Mediterranean restaurant in Shelton. When he's not in the kitchen, he's on his motorcycle. He rode his BMW 1,000 miles to Prince Edward Island. He describes the empty roads, flanked by potato fields as "very peaceful."
Fairfield County's less peaceful and more congested roads lead to few waterfront restaurants. And even fewer that serve really good food. Sierra is fixing that. He's a pro who builds layers of flavors the old-fashioned way, through classic French technique.
Rive Bistro has a spare, contemporary feel, with dark wood and burgundy banquettes. Lots of windows make it easy to get a good view. Despite its intimate feel, the restaurant seats 72 inside, with 50 more on a covered outdoor patio. The bar seats 15, and is a sophisticated spot for a glass of wine. Order Sierra's housemade charcuterie – duck and foie gras sausage with lentil salad, foie gras mousse with fig marmalade or duck rillettes.
When I think of waterfront dining, I think of seafood, and one of the dishes I enjoyed most recently, when Chef Sierra invited members of the press to sample his menu, was his grilled salmon ($24). Here the chef's original touch was a pool of yellow bell pepper sauce, tasting silky and utterly yellow peppery, touched with a soupçon of dill, bright and snappy. I just loved this sauce. The salmon came with soft, buttery kale. The potato puree was decadently rich. Healthy eating for people who aren't afraid of butter.
Grilled shrimp were served with white beans that had slowly cooked with duck fat, slab bacon and tomatoes. Escargot were loaded with garlic and brightened with fresh herbs, the way we love them. Moules provençal had a bright, expressive flavor, the white wine broth boosted with fresh clam juice, Pernod, the licorice-flavored liqueur, and fresh basil.
Lobster rolls – yes, there are lobster rolls on the menu (this is Fairfield County) — come two ways, as a small plate, two mini rolls on brioche buns, with celery root slaw, and as a full-size sandwich. The lobster is warm, draped with clarified butter flavored with shallots and lemon. Crab cakes are served with curry remoulade (a cold mayonnaise sauce). Oysters on the half-shell — blue-points — come with tequila mignonette, a contemporary American stroke.
Of course there are those classic French salads. Niçoise with fresh seared tuna. Frisée au lardon dressed in warm bacon vinaigrette and topped with a soft poached egg and croutons. Roasted beet salad has an original presentation, beets sliced paper thin, dressed in walnut vinaigrette, and laid in overlapping pattern, a base for maché, that fragrant, flowery green, and soft goat cheese.
Steak Frites, a thick, seared New York strip, comes with a choice of black peppercorn or roquefort sauce. I love the sharpness of the black peppercorn against the red meat. The former French colony of Tunisia is brought forth in a small plate of cumin-scented lamb meatballs, smoothly ground and bright with lemon zest, garnished with caramelized onions ($11). Sierra makes the merguez lamb sausages for a sandwich topped with sautéed onions and bell peppers. The bread is spread with harrissa aioli ($16). A vegetarian's best bet is the cheese plate, the Rive salad of mixed greens or the grilled portabello sandwich, topped with brie, roasted red pepper, tomatoes, and basil pistou (French pesto).
In cool weather, seafood parmentier, a French shepherd's pie filled with mussels, clams, shrimp and scallops, bound in béchamel sauce, topped with celery root puree and finished with a little gruyere, will be a comforting dish.
For dessert, we tried pain perdu, bread pudding made with brioche and served with caramel sauce. The real knockout was freshly baked madeleines, light-textured, flavored with orange zest and Grand Marnier, and accompanied with a pot of dark chocolate to dip them in.