Come dinnertime in the narrow streets of Old Nice in the Provence region of France, there is a festive air of culinary carnival. Restaurateurs set tables on the sidewalks and drag chalkboard menus onto the crooked lanes, in hopes of luring sun-weary diners into their establishments to indulge in their particular versions of the local delicacies. For the wide-eyed Côte D’Azur tourist hungry for the flavors of France, there is a dizzying selection.
It’s starting to feel that way in Nashville, too.
OK, fine, I’m exaggerating. But it’s no hyperbole to say this city has more French food in its restaurant repertoire now than at any time in recent memory. In addition to recent James Beard nominee Margot Café and its cafe-market little sister, Marché — not to mention the beloved patisserie Provence Café & Breads — there’s Miel on the fringe of Sylvan Park, Table 3 in Green Hills and newcomers Café Fundamental in East Nashville and blvd on Belmont.
The burgeoning alliance française expanded further this winter with the February debut of Riviera Provincial Grill, in the location of the bygone DaVinci’s Pizza. The project of French-born Jacques Hourtal and his European-trained chef son, Philippe, Riviera is not the Hourtals’ first foray into la cuisine française. Hourtal the elder founded Gauguin, Soleil and Anis in Atlanta, as well as the Cornish Manor in Oakland, Md., before taking over the spot on Hayes Street where the short-lived Vito’s Ristorante recently endeavored to bring Italian fare into the long Midtown shadow of the Hutton Hotel.
There is a homespun casualness about the red-roofed eatery, which is accented with brick-red and mustard-yellow walls, rusticated farmhouse furniture and white butcher paper covering black tablecloths, and where gracious and well-informed servers dress in T-shirts. Travel posters of Nice and other Mediterranean landmarks hint at the culinary influence of Southern France, but don’t head to Riviera Provincial Grill expecting coastal signatures such as socca (bread made of ground chickpeas), pissaladière (cheeseless thin-crust pizza), or tarte aux blettes (sweet pie made with Swiss chard). The absence of these Provençal tropes on our visits made us take another look at the restaurant name. Ah, yes, it does says Provincial, not Provençal. So, maybe that explains it, though the distinction does not necessarily flatter anyone, given that one definition of “provincial” is “not fashionable or sophisticated.”
In lieu of a tight script of Southeastern French fare, we found a broad, comforting ensemble of familiar French favorites — think mussels, salade Niçoise, trout amandine, rack of lamb, duck confit with lentils, onion soup, crème brûlée and crêpes — ranging from middling to magnifique.In our experience, the highlights of a meal at Riviera came at the beginning and at the end. Easily the most memorable and outstanding item we sampled was the so-called Frog Legs Provincial appetizer. Five tiny pairs of legs, smaller than a Barbie’s bottom half, arrived perfectly battered and fried to crisp golden-brown. So delicate were the little limbs that we picked them up with our fingers and nibbled the tender meat with our front teeth, with none of the messy fuss that comes from tackling more muscular gams the size of chicken drumettes, for example. The nearly greaseless cuisses de grenouille lounged in a bath of olive oil, which would have perplexed us if we hadn’t found ourselves sopping up every last golden drop — tinged with sautéed garlic and fresh threads of fennel — with the help of crusty bread.
The faint anise trace of fennel was echoed in the Escargot 51 appetizer, a decadent presentation of a half-dozen tender snails coiled in a licorice-laced bath of Pernod, butter, garlic and parsley. We sent the empty plate back with shameless fingerprints across the surface, having squeegeed up every last trace of sauce with our bare hands. (Speaking of provincial, c’est moi.)
At $6.50, the carpaccio starter was an economical indulgence, with a single sheet of thin raw beef laced with olive oil and lemon juice and plated with arugula, capers, shaved onion and parmesan.
For what it’s worth, a couple of appetizers along with a dessert (more on this sweet topic later), would make an exquisite meal.
In general, however, our satisfaction with entrées was more qualified. Rosemary rack of lamb braised with garlic and Dijon mustard arrived a sullen gray, despite our request for pink, and was extremely salty. Duck confit was a plump drumstick in a comforting stew of lentils, but we were disappointed by the absence of the promised fig marmalade. To be fair, there may have been figs integrated into the large serving, but we missed their visual impact or any element of contrast in such a monotonous bowl of brown legumes.
Poulet D’Aix, named for the Southern town Aix-en-Provence, was an abundant but otherwise unremarkable presentation of slightly dry grilled breast topped with a dollop of tarragon butter and plated with roasted potatoes that lacked any caramelized crunch. The most noteworthy aspect of the dish was a medley of thinly sliced and delicately sautéed squash and zucchini.
Shrimp aux Ricard with tomatoes, olives, roasted red peppers and fresh herbs ranked among the most satisfactory dinners, thanks to its more vibrant array of flavors and colors, but even that success was mixed: The rice was not ready when the rest of the dish was, so our server delivered a ramekin of rice after the fact. It’s worth noting that the restaurant hasn’t been open long, and this was the only hiccup.
That’s not to say we didn’t enjoy our visits to Riviera, or that we didn’t leave talking about highlights, such as silken lobster bisque or the exotic thrill of plucking vertebrae from Mami Lulu’s hearty ragout of wine-braised rabbit with carrots and caramelized turnips.
One consistent comment that emerged after all three visits was the sheer affordability of the restaurant — especially at lunch. Even dinner tops out at $25 for beef tenderloin with Portobello mushroom and crumbled gorgonzola, and the excellent appetizers all clock in below $10.
One diner in my group suggested ordering the lunch of linguine in light cream sauce — overflowing with mussels, shrimp, scallops and fish — to take home and augment with extra pasta, because there was enough seafood to share among a group of four. At $10.50 the linguine is indeed a stunning bargain.
Meanwhile, there was consistent praise for the desserts, including chocolate mousse and a bright lemon tart in a hand-crafted pie shell. We enjoyed the low-key no-flambé crêpes Suzette, entwined with fine strings of orange zest. And on all three visits, we couldn’t help but revisit the over-the-top Nutella crème brûlée. In a city with an ever-increasing number of crème brûlées, the question inevitably arises: When it comes to la cuisine française, which restaurant has the best? At this point, we haven’t determined an answer. But after years of bemoaning a lack of French cuisine in Nashville, we are decidedly happy to ponder the question.
Riviera Provincial is open 11 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Brunch will begin later this spring. The April 3 grand opening will include a $30 prix fixe menu, reservations required.