Riviera Bistro
394 E. Main St
Ventura
667-2120
$3-$21

In the tradition of European cafes, Riviera Bistro exudes a casual elegance.

It is at once both the familiar neighborhood stopover for live music or cocktails and a hideaway for canoodling couples to sip champagne, share escargot and celebrate a special occasion. With a duality perfect for Southern California, one could walk in wearing flip-flops or a tuxedo (or both!) and feel right at home.

Riviera’s outside patio offers an extroverted, colorful slice of downtown Ventura. Bright, Mediterranean waxed tablecloths mix with iron scrollwork and a granite-topped bar. There are heaters overhead, and on a chilly night it’s a delight to sit outside sipping red wine and watch the fog roll in while staying warm and cozy. Electric bikes and motorcycles occasionally whiz by and strolling shoppers talk on their cell phones as they eye your dinner with envy.

Riviera’s interior feels more tucked away. Dark wood tables, upholstered banquets, warm golden and cranberry walls and large paintings of lavender fields and pastoral scenes set the stage. It is somewhat lively because they feature local music several nights a week, but has lots of nooks in which to hide, and the volume doesn’t tend to overpower conversations.

The menu comprises simple classic preparations. There are sandwiches, a caprese sandwich or an Angus cheeseburger on a baguette or soups like a rich, smooth lobster bisque or classic French onion. They also offer a variety of salads (like proscuitto and asparagus or roasted beet/gorgonzola) and house pizzas, but their appetizers and entrees are the pièces de résistance.

White Fish Meunière is a house favorite featuring crispy-edged moist tilapia in a citrus, white wine, butter sauce with capers. Their short rib entrée is a fall-off-the-bone, savory stew with concentrated flavors of burgundy wine and root vegetables that reminds you of something your grandmother simmered for hours.

The descriptions on Riviera’s menu don’t do justice to what comes out of its kitchen. For instance, pork tenderloin with Dijon mustard sauce features fork-tender lightly floured pork served in a rich brown sauce with a hint of tang I dare say even people who abhor mustard would enjoy. If a description doesn’t paint the picture for you, don’t be afraid to ask for details.

The night I dined for this review, I missed seeing Jean-Christophe Bricot (or “JC” as he’s known by everyone who enters the door). He has a great staff, but there is something about the seemingly easy-going, charming Frenchman that makes the experience authentic.

We ordered drinks, and our water and bread arrived quickly. The bread basket was generously filled with warm crusty baguettes with soft fluffy centers and butter.

We ordered the special soup (an organic tomato bisque), the duck confit with cherry griottes (Morello cherries) appetizer, a Caesar salad and the fish special, red snapper with sambuca sauce and yellow tomatoes.

The band inside (a gypsy jazz swing band that plays every Thursday) started to fill the air with upbeat happy tunes from the ’40s. We devoured our bread and fell into the melodies and I almost forgot my drink hadn’t arrived. About 15 minutes later, my mojito came. The limes weren’t as fresh appearing as I’d have liked, but the flavors were fine.

Our food arrived in a timely matter. The creamy soup was a gorgeous smooth salmon color that tasted as fresh as a summer garden. The crispy romaine Caesar had a simple dressing with the perfect twang and generous curls of parmigiano.

The confit was a gorgeous braised duck leg surrounded by a moat of cherries. One of my friends swore she wasn’t a duck person but agreed to try the tart luscious sauce. “Ohhh, that’s really good,” she sighed and before I knew it, she began pulling tender pieces of duck meat off the bone with her fork.

Our entrée, the red snapper, was a surprise. Sambuca, Italian elderberry liqueur, usually has an anise flavor, but what struck us were the sweet elements, not the anise. The juicy fish filets were glazed in buttery sauce with beautiful, bursting, tiny whole tomatoes and accompanied by sweet, perfectly roasted fingerling potatoes and fresh asparagus spears.

Toward the end of the meal, I discovered JC had been in the kitchen training new cooks. That explains the particularly delightful flavors from the kitchen, but also the slower service or other glitches we experienced. If only he could be cloned …
Before we left our table, my non-duck girlfriend was shamelessly reaching her arm over the expanse of the table to pick at the remaining bites of duck we’d left, obviously converted. We left full and pleased as we sauntered into the foggy night while the gypsy jazz played on.    

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