But the bearnaise, ah, the bearnaise. Homemade on the premises, Chef Aimee's airy whipped version of egg yolks, butter, shallots and tarragon nearly makes up for all the bad bearnaise I've been subjected to over the years. You know, the prefab, packaged mix kind? Even the vegetables accompanying our entrees are sensational. A minicasserole of sliced potatoes layered with cheese turns my accomplice, who is not a fan of scalloped potatoes, into a devotee. Equally fabulous is the buttery matchstick-cut medley of zucchini, potato and carrots. These side dishes are no aside.
On the night we visit, dessert is decent, but not a strong point. Presentation is casual. A rough scoop of rich, dark-chocolate mousse is placed unceremoniously on a plate, as is a slice of brown, caramelized apple tart, yet we still manage to find pleasure in eating both.
Part of Barbara's charm is that it is unpretentious. At times, however, I find myself longing for more attention to the finer details of service: the replacement of silverware and cutlery, the quick removal of plates, promptly refilled water glasses and, yes, the beloved silver crumber. This level of service is difficult, if not impossible, when there is only one person working the room. Yet, I think food this good and a room this attractive warrant it.
I'll be honest with you. Cafe Riviera is a nice little restaurant serving accessible, noncomplex French--and some Italian--food. Owners Pierre George and George Brual's biggest obstacle to success is Cafe Riviera's doomed Kino Plaza location at 32nd Street and Thunderbird. Most recently, this space housed White Nights, a Russian restaurant that received only fair reviews. The onion-shaped doorways are reminders of the dill and potatoes I once consumed here.
The restaurant looks better, more alive than it did in its previous incarnation. A white trellis now breaks up the room and a bar has been installed where there once was a small stage. French folk and contemporary music play on the sound system. Even the lighting seems better.
The French rolls and butter we are brought at the start favorably dispose me to the rest of Cafe Riviera's offerings. It's not that I'm easy; it's that the hot rolls and butter are good.
The calamari salad doesn't let me down. Featuring rings and tentacles marinated simply in olive oil and vinegar, the squid is tender and al dente--not rubbery. Chopped green pepper, onion, tomato and just enough garlic make this a calamari salad to remember.
A hot appetizer of seafood in a puff pastry shell misses its mark only because it is too salty. Otherwise, the mussels, scallops, calamari and some type of white fish (forgive my ignorance) in a creamy, green sauce are very pleasing.
Where Barbara's is accessible and unpretentious, Cafe Riviera is downright family- and value- oriented. Soup or salad comes with each entree. The green salad of leaf lettuce and tomato in a gentle vinaigrette is quite good--and I am hard on gratis salads. I also like the hot leek-potato soup. The potatoes give this creamy concoction the consistency of pea soup.
Oversalting rears its ugly head again when our entrees arrive. The green peppercorn-brandy sauce served with the filet mignon is the criminal. The sauce is flavorful, but too salty to be fully enjoyable. The beef is of good quality and cooked to order.
I could use more fresh citrus with my canard a l'orange (duck with orange sauce). I could also use a steak knife (again). I find it difficult to remove the quacker from the bone. The portion is large and I end up taking quite a bit home. Perhaps that's because I eat all of my delicious vegetables: diced garlic potatoes, brussels sprouts and cauliflower and a puree of carrots.
Dessert here is surprisingly good. A slab of chocolate mousse embedded with cake is served with raspberry sauce. A creme au caramel or caramel-flavored egg custard is one of the best flans I've ever eaten--smooth and creamy.
I wish Cafe Riviera bon chance. The food is good, the prices are moderate, and most important, Pierre and George know the difference between accessible and Americanized. You won't find fancy French food at Cafe Riviera, just hearty, simple fare that happens to have originated in France.