Forget Paris

Here's the way I imagine it went down: The two proprietors of Riviera Brasserie are sitting at a table discussing their prospective new restaurant with genuine enthusiasm. One says to the other, "We'll become known far and wide for our fine and authentic French brasserie fare." "Oui," responds the other, "We'll start by serving only the freshest pieces of French baguette. And little plastic cups of fake butter to go with it."

The two at the table would have been manager Antoine Biccherai and his father Jean, a veteran restaurateur from Nice. I doubt they ever had such a conversation; still, mais non! What were they thinking? Who'd actually choose that tasteless, low-fat, whipped soybean-oil spread to go with their bread, and before indulging in a stream of cream-laden dishes at that?

Not a great way to introduce a meal. If this was their idea of an acceptable spread for bread, the fear that Velveeta would follow on top of the onion soup was not unfounded. Nor was the suspicion that this was a brasserie in name only.

The Riviera Brasserie opened last summer in the blossoming neighborhood now called Brickell Village. Perricones, the Provence Grill, and particularly Firehouse Four are contributing to an increasingly vibrant night scene, especially on Friday evenings when white collars from the nearby business district quench their post-work- week thirst. The Riviera is just a block away from the action, in the space formerly occupied by the Greenwich Cafe. The music is up front in the barroom, separated from the brasserie by a dark cloth curtain and a distinctly different ambiance. The bar itself is large and rectangular, surrounded by 28 stools, a pool table, two sports-filled TV screens, and a smattering of dining tables both inside and out. It's funky and informal, a place conducive to loosening one's tie and ordering a cold one.

This is how it should be, for the original brasseries of the 1500s were German breweries. Patrons would sit on long wooden benches at long wooden tables, drink ale, and eat plates of sauerkraut and oysters (though not necessarily together).

After the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, refugees from Alsace-Lorraine arrived in Paris and fashioned a new look for brasseries: elegant and ornately decorated, like the great cafes of that time. (The South Beach Brasserie does a nice job of recreating this style.) A brasserie was where writers, artists, politicians, and working people could eat, drink, write, argue, and play chess, all at the same table.

Today at the Riviera, the drink of choice resembles its French rather than German heritage. The wine list includes sixteen labels, mostly a French-American split, sold by the glass at pretty reasonable prices ($4-$7.50). The choice of imported beers, however, is a paltry three. Despite that dearth the Riviera is a better drinking establishment than an eating one.

Perhaps the mixed Franco-Prussian ancestry confused the owners, but none of the fare at this brasserie is particularly authentic, whether it be French, German, Italian, or American in origin. Back in the cafe the Parisian decor is typical enough: lots of dark wood and etched glass; pale yellow walls; those big Toulouse-Lautrec posters of the Moulin Rouge that are de rigueur for any bistro, cafe, or brasserie; and a wall of glass doors opening on to patio dining. (The indoor and outdoor seating capacity of the bar and restaurant is well over a hundred.) White butcher paper covered our cranberry-color tablecloth, upon which sat a vase of dried flowers and a flickering candle in a red glass, partially torn scanning sticker still stuck on.

The waiter started us off with an amuse-guele, a complimentary little preappetizer snack that in this case was oozy herbed-mozzarella cheese in a crisp phyllo triangle. French onion soup followed, and though there was no Velveeta on top, the slice of melted Swiss was so gooey and uncrusted that it may as well have been. The menu had actually promised "grilled mozzarella cheese," which would prove to be just the first in a long string of deceptive descriptions. (By the end of my dining experience here I came to accept that the menu was composed by a wily and wholly untrustworthy fellow.) Even so the cheese was the best part of the soup; the rest was inedibly salty. The problem, judging by the flavor, was too much Knorr's beef stock.

The Riviera runs one special entree each evening (usually seafood), which is served with soup for $9.95. There's also a $29.95 dinner special for two offering that same entree, soup or salad, and a bottle of wine. Otherwise pricing is moderate. We ordered the two most expensive starters (both at $11.90), the "salade Riviera" and salmon tartare. The former featured mango and avocado crescents circling the plate, with a centered mound of lightly dressed field greens and snow crab (applied so parsimoniously as to resemble a light dusting of snow). A fried scallion, black and curly, garnished the top. On the side was a saucer containing "cocktail" dressing that was really closer to Russian dressing: ketchup, mayo, and brandy.

The latter was a pleasant surprise. The salmon tartare was as ample as the crab was skimpy, a huge hamburger-shape patty of small-diced, scrumptiously fresh salmon marinated simply in lemon juice and olive oil. Sharing the plate was a curious bedfellow: a crouton with tomato, fresh mozzarella, and basil. I'm still not certain if I was supposed to place the salmon on top of the tomato-mozzarella toast, or eat them separately.

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