Surprising luxury at a long-time favorite restaurant
By Frank Whitman
The manager stopped by our table to welcome us on our anniversary. She tapped a small piece of paper on the table and said, “The Chef’s skate special is delicious.” What a luxury! Written out specials, saving us from the stress of trying to remember recited details and wondering about prices when all we wanted to do was get settled, enjoy our wine and savor the view.
The Skate ($34) was indeed delicious. Pan seared “piccata style” in a lemony sauce with a double spoonful of capers, the tender, flaky fillet was accompanied by a colorful tangle of squash and grape tomatoes over a hearty parmesan risotto.
Marsha’s Trout Almondine ($33), generously topped with buttery slivered almonds on a bed of green beans and carrot spears, was equally as appealing and tasty.
The helpful specials menu yielded a prelude to summer – rich and flavorful tomato and roasted bell pepper soup ($14) garnished with a handful of Asiago cheese. Gently toasted baguette slices were the foundation for baked brie crostini ($15). Honey and fig marmalade paired well with the plump slices of cheese while a sprinkle of chopped pistachios added crunch.
We were at the Rive Bistro, long a popular dining spot in Westport. The banner on the outside proclaimed this as their tenth anniversary year. With waterfront dining along the Saugatuck River, a classic dark-wood interior, outdoor dining and a fireplace in winter, it ticks a lot of boxes.
In the restaurant business, even if you’ve been at it for ten years, something is always new. In the case of the Rive, there’s a new chef at the helm. You may know Roland Olah from his success at the now-closed, much-awarded Bruxelles in South Norwalk or his long tenure at Martel in Fairfield.
Olah has brought his well-established track record of classic Eurocentric cuisine in Fairfield County to the traditional menu at Rive. He’s taking things up a notch or two. As a testament to his skill, Proprietor Eric Serra has given equal billing to Olah as Executive Chef on the masthead of the menu.
The emphasis is on seafood: branzino, salmon, bouillabaisse, shrimp, and mussels in a signature enameled pot. Other classics include pâté, charcuterie, and escargot. There is, of course, steak frites in
addition to a burger, salads, and tuna tartar. I was surprised by Shrimp and Grits “Chef Roland Style.” Even a classically trained chef in a French restaurant has to have some menu fun.
Did you ever wonder why restaurant food can vary from visit to visit, even though things seem outwardly the same? The answer may be in the kitchen leadership. Chefs come and go moving on because of better opportunities, differences with ownership, or for personal reasons. It’s rare for a restaurant to have the same chef for decades. The only one I know of is Via Sforza Trattoria in Westport.
A periodic change is much more the norm. Sometimes it seems like chefs, sous chefs and bakers move around like kings, queens, and knights on a chess board.
It’s not easy for the customer to keep track of kitchen comings and goings. The restaurant who loses a good one is not going to advertise it. On the other hand, it’s risky to promote a “new chef.” What if it doesn’t work out?
Customers don’t have any way to ferret this out other than word of mouth. The chef’s new gig may be far away or nearby, at a different style of eatery, or even out of the public eye at a club, corporation, or school.
Big name restaurants with world-wide reputations often sign their chef’s to generous multi-year contracts to provide stability. Small restaurant groups often move chefs from one restaurant to another for personal growth and professional development. Single location establishments don’t have as many options.
In the case of the Rive Bistro, it’s testament to the confidence of both owner and chef that Olah’s name is on the menu. I hope it works out. I’m looking forward to trying his shrimp and grits next time.