By Charles T. Clark
Jonathan Rapp is one of Connecticut's homegrown celebrity chefs - minus the television show, plus the extended fan club. His River Tavern in picturesque Chester, from my experience, remains one of very few restaurants foodies in eastern Connecticut consistently mention when discussing where to celebrate special events. One could become tired of all the encomia sprinkled on River Tavern if the whole experience wasn't so enjoyable.
Two of us arrived at River Tavern one hot summer night. Overflow diners were perched at outdoor tables, and the compact interior was stuffed to the gills. With butter yellow walls, colorful Sol Lewitt prints, and bright window facing a bamboo forest, River Tavern is by far one of the prettiest spaces in this part of New England.
The restaurant focuses on local ingredients, a fact amplified on the printed menu and featured prominently on the excellent website. Fish, meat, fruit, and vegetables - all manner of edibles come from local purveyors. We started with an impeccably fresh, summery plate of roasted and sliced tomatoes, beets and onions paired with slices of tender Scamorza cheese (akin to Mozzarella) and garnished with anchovy filets, sliced olives, and a shower of olive oil ($12).
Other first courses included veal sweetbreads with peach, raisin and caper chutney, and an old favorite, a grilled beef salad with Thai accents including a piquant lime and chili dressing.
Rapp's team does wonderful things with corn. Their corn soup - sweet, silken, and perfectly seasoned - was garnished with several slices of tender lobster ($13). What could have been heavy in the wrong hands proved itself ethereal.
The menu included just five main courses on the night of our visit, but only a vegetarian would have felt left out (odd that with the focus on fresh ingredients there aren't more meatless options). Meals are accompanied by slices of whole wheat bread (decent if not memorable) and a bowl of olive oil.
Locally caught fish and scallops are offered; recently the menu has featured swordfish with white beans and lemon cantata. We enjoyed a superb filet of striped bass ($28) perched casually upon a summer bounty: beets, corn, summer squash, and green beans, all united by a peach vinaigrette (and garnished with a few peach slices, not as unwelcome as they sound).
I've loved the restaurant's homemade pasta on countless occasions. It is invariably superb - toothsome, cooked to a perfect al dente. On our August evening, silky spaghetti was barely coated with a tomato and basil cream sauce (no standing pool of sauce) and joined by a quintet of minty veal and ricotta meatballs. With everything so scrupulously fresh, it was worth the steep $24.
We barely had room for one dessert, so we focused on River Tavern's signature baked date pudding ($12) that, along with a chocolate soufflé, has to be ordered at the start of dinner. The menu included a handful of lighter desserts with a summer accent: panna cotta with peaches and blueberries, vanilla ice cream with blueberry compote and honey, and cherry ricotta cheesecake.
But the date pudding is too good to pass up even on a hot summer night. The light, moist pudding, more the consistency of cake, is topped with a rich rum and caramel sauce and paired with a dollop of tangy, unsweetened whipped cream.
I suspect as summer progresses surplus local crops will make their way into more and more of the restaurant's recipes - things like heirloom tomatoes, root vegetables, summer squash. The kitchen's enthusiasm shows; three of our five dishes were garnished with a cascade of basil leaves. A fresh, crisp, emerald cascade, to be sure, but overpowering. You've got to like basil to make it work. I am glad we did. It was the only evidence of a heavy hand at work.
As we relaxed over dessert and the last of our wine, the crowd thinned out, the lights were dimmed, and the restaurant seemed to let out a little sigh of relief. The staff moved silently and efficiently within the warm, glowing space. To me, this is when River Tavern is at its best. When you can sit back over terrific food and focus on conversation with good friends, cossetted by the restaurant's capable staff.