There's a fabulous trend throughout Fairfield County of restaurants reinventing themselves. Smart restaurateurs aren't lamenting over the down economy, blaming their chefs, or settling for status quo. Instead, they are identifying issues, making bold changes and staying in tune with their customers.
River House (recently dropped "tavern" from the name), situated on the calming ripples of the Saugatuck River, is celebrating its 7th year anniversary this summer. With it comes a "new," revamped concept and cuisine.
River House, now under the leadership of General Manager Helen Haberman and Executive Chef Raul Restrepo, and owned by Kevin Burns, has found its voice, worked out the kinks, and truly created a destination worthy of its stunning location.
It begins with a new look. The interior has been brightened up with fresh white painted walls and borders framing the large windows that provide the panoramic views of waterfront homes, changing foliage and the seasonal river activities. Tables are covered with white table linen and brown butcher paper, showing that sophistication does not have to be so stuffy. The covered patio and surrounding boardwalk is lined with rope lighting and pink rose bushes. The path leading to the restaurant is marked by herb gardens.
Haberman, a seasoned restaurateur who came to River House by way of a long restaurant history in New York City, is thrilled with the transformation that she has spearheaded. "It's been a long time coming, "she said. "And, with Chef here, everything feels right now."
The "Chef" she is referring to is Raul Restrepo. Prior to taking on the task of revamping the River House menu, Chef Restrepo worked his culinary magic at Harry Cipriani in New York. "It was from my time at Cipriani where I realized that I could only work with the best ingredients possible, " he said. "It is what sets good food apart from great food. And I want River House to be known for great food."
There is a definite style of cuisine now at River House. I would tag it as "the Mediterranean meets New England" with an emphasis on seafood. Chef's Latin roots certainly shine through, and those "best ingredients" he talked about are apparent. You can still grab a burger and get your French fry fix, but now they are just the best burger and fries.
My food enthusiast boyfriend, Scott, and I sat inside as it was the end of a hot and muggy day (although, that did not deter the other 20 diners from sitting on the patio). To say we got a window seat would just be self serving, as every seat at River House is a window seat. The tables are larger than what most smaller restaurants have, which scored big points with us. And the chairs are super comfy, another element that that hits high notes with me.
Setting the stage for the new concept, the menu starts out with such items as seafood chowder and raw bar items, including local clams and oysters on the half shell and jumbo shrimp cocktail. Baby calamari is offered fried or sautéed with a fra diavolo sauce. Go for the fra diavolo and soak up all that wonderful sauce with Chef's homemade semolina bread, which is baked daily, along with whole wheat and other varieties. There are also crab cakes, spicy shrimp skewers, and lobster spring rolls with mango, ginger, and jalapeno. The lobster spring rolls are one of the few deep fried items left on the menu. The new menu is geared more towards fresh, clean flavors and simple preparations that focus on simplicity and natural tastes and textures.
Daily ceviche combinations change with the season and availability of fish. We enjoyed a lime, lemon and ginger ceviche with slices of sea bass, shrimp, squid, and scallops. The citrus shined through with sweet red onions, hot cherry peppers and paper thin slices of tomatillos which offered a refreshing contrast to the tanginess of the citrus soaked seafood.
Lunch and dinner menus vary slightly. For lunch, I recommend the warm lobster roll with tender sweet buttery lobster chunks nestled in a soft toasted buttered roll. Turkey cob, classic Caesar and hanger steak salads share the stage with juicy burgers, a turkey club and River House's signature go-to lunch of grilled cheese with maplewood-smoked bacon served with house-made tomato soup.
Fish house fare includes: beer-battered cod and chips with real coleslaw, tartar sauce and hand cut fries; pan-seared diver scallops with roasted corn sauce, jasmine rice, and sautéed baby spinach; and brook trout with lemon, caper and crab sauce.
The fish special of the night was Chilean sea bass with Israeli couscous. Chef seared the wonderfully oily, white flaky fish with a parsley, caper and olive coating that helped to produce a flavorful brown crust to the thick piece of fish. It was served with a simply and colorful mélange of Israeli cousous (thick beads of pasta), diced red peppers and blanched edamame dressed with a drizzle of olive oil and subtle seasoning. It was a perfect dish.
Chef's Latin cuisine is truly something, while not taking liberties, but rather, by sticking to the authenticity of the dish, as seen with the seafood paella. Baldo rice (short grain rice likened to Arborio) is simmered in a saffron scented broth with onions, peppers and spicy andouille sausage. Shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels, and a split half lobster are then added to the mixture. Each component remains moist and flavorful and every bite is just as succulent as the last.
Carnivores, this is your place too! Roasted half chicken with a citrus-thyme jus comes with garlic mashed potatoes and crisp asparagus. A char-grilled hanger steak is presented with mesclun side salad and those scrumptious hand cut fries. Vegetables are the side dish of choice with most of the meat and fish dishes, which is appropriate for the more Mediterranean style of cuisine now being featured.
No matter how satisfied I am after a wonderful meal, a little something sweet always sounds good to me. Desserts are made in house every day. Chef's approach to savory dishes is mimicked in his sweet creations. We are treated to the dessert sampling that River House will undoubtedly become known for. Slivers of flourless chocolate cake with macadamia nuts, ricotta cheesecake with a chocolate granola crust and apple strudel with a dollop of "Mr. Shane's Ice Cream" (out of Ridgefield) is served with fresh strawberries. All of the desserts are not overly sweet – just simply decadent and mouthwatering. It's a fabulous way to end the meal.
The wine list is impressive and accessible and the wines by the glass are not the ones that are merely overstocked. Menu prices are in keeping with the seasonality and quality of food and worth the higher price point. Portions are generous too.
We are thrilled with the new River House, so much so that we don't want to leave right away. So, we linger, gaze over the river, look to see what other folks are eating, and listen to the jazz musicians that play every Thursday evening during dinner hours and beyond.
It's time to revisit the River House and experience what is poised to become a Westport hot spot.