A Restaurant Lunch to Celebrate Spring

By Frank Whitman

Weren’t the warm days this week a gift? This year’s first temperatures in the 70s pulled up the daffodils, brightened the clumps of purple crocus and forced bud-break on the forsythia.  The warmth and sunshine aren’t here to stay, but Spring is.  The warm, budding season pulled Marsha and I out of the house for a celebratory lunch by the water. 

We were drawn to the Rive Bistro, along the Saugatuck River in Westport, for views of the ebb and flow of the tide and an excellent lunch.  The Bistro has always been a pretty spot with Gallic style and a fascinating display of river activity.  These days with chef Roland Olah at the helm, it’s a destination for flavorful, beautifully-presented French classics. 

Our table by the window was dressed with Spring-pink and white flowers in a glass vase and beige napkins set off by brown woven placemats. 

Salad Niçoise can be a culinary cliché, but not in the hands of Olah.  Black olives, the ingredient that ties the salad to southern France, are not scattered on, but finely chopped into a tapenade and spread around the side of the bowl as a flavor foundation.  Tiny new potatoes, chopped green beans, delightfully ripe, flavorful tomatoes, and vivid red peppers are all tossed with a mustardy Dijon vinaigrette.  Bright yellow hard-cooked eggs, anchovies and a chunk of perfectly-cooked tuna ride on the top. Angela, the charming host, explained that the anchovies – tiny flavor-packed fillets – are fresh, shipped in from Turkey.  It was, perhaps, the best version of Salad Niçoise I’d ever seen.

In Chef Olah’s kitchen, a Croque Madame is a refined version of this bistro classic – like a ham and cheese sandwich with a graduate degree in culinary arts.  Encased in slices of pain de mie, the ham and gruyère were grilled to crisp-edged perfection. A thin layer of creamy béchamel was glazed under the broiler and then topped with a crackly-edged fried egg.  Hearty, yes, but delicate too with a broad range of flavors and textures, it was a far cry from the often over-sauced and under-grilled examples I sometimes see.  

A couple of hamburgers were delivered to a nearby table.  Stately in their high-domed brioche buns, they looked tempting. But why order a hamburger? The menu offers such French delights as steak frites, trout almondine and moules frites along with pâté, escargot and French onion soup. 

Green with Envy

Chef Olah tries hard to focus on France.  He does stray occasionally across the border to northern Italy with burrata, gnocchi and lamb Bolognese, but I’m sure they’re all delicious. He does manage to avoid the now ubiquitous category of flat bread. 

The Frenchness at Rive Bistro extends, of course, to the wine list. The selections are (all but two) French.  Even the Riesling is from Alsace

Feeling calorically splurgy, Marsha kicked off with a mocktail: Green with Envy.  The refreshing spring-green drink in a tall glass was a grownup blend of avocado, apple juice, agave, lemon juice and lime-yuzu soda. As refreshing as the color was seasonal, it was a delightful start.  

We wound up with another splurge: a shared double-scoop of colorful sorbet – mango and raspberry. Coffee service is old-school, poured at the table from a gleaming, spouted pot that stays on hand for refills.  

As the tide filled the river, we celebrated the warm days and the coming equinox – the official start of spring – happy for the excuse to lunch out.