Forget Paris

The menu trumpets a real salade niçoise with "lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, egg, black olives, anchovies, onions, and cucumbers" -- but no green beans or potatoes, two of the three main ingredients (along with tomatoes) in Auguste Escoffier's recipe published in 1921. Also, no mention of tuna. I asked the waiter whether tuna came with the salad, suggesting to him that such was usually the case. He responded with a shrug of the shoulders and a scrutiny of the menu, after which he agreed there was no mention of the fish, but if I said it came with the salad, then he guessed it did. It did. Solid white albacore, in thick wedges, on mixed field greens with a grain-mustard vinaigrette. Authentic salade niçoise is dressed in oil and vinegar, but in fact the vinegary mustard played well against the various ingredients.

There's an entire page of pasta entrees wherein you choose a shape of noodle and match it with a sauce: arrabiata, Alfredo, Bolognese, and so on. We paired the penne rigate with pesto, the slightly overcooked ridged tubes of pasta tossed with a forceful sauce of basil, garlic, and cheese; no pine nut flavor or texture to speak of. This dish was also cream-based, which pesto sauce does not by name imply (my, this menu guy is sly). The penne pesto wasn't bad, but unfortunately only reconfirmed my longstanding belief that if you want pasta, it's best to go to an Italian restaurant.

Of the two fish dishes offered, we skipped the grilled tuna with peppers and onions in favor of the more brasserielike salmon on a bed of "spinach salad" (turned out to be sauteed spinach) with boiled potatoes and "butter-herb sauce" (clarified butter with parsley). There was so much butter on the plate that my gripe about the lack of it with the bread basket seemed premature. The salmon, though, was beautifully grilled to near-translucence, and the accompaniments cooked to perfection.

Paris has been the home of French fries since at least the Sixteenth Century, when they were sold at stalls on the Pont Neuf. Classic cookbooks have since referred to a "pommes Pont Neuf" as a squat French fry, and the version at the Riviera is very much a classic: thick, rectangular sticks of golden fried potato, soft and steamy within. You can order them a la carte, but they also come alongside the New York steak with three-peppercorn sauce, reason enough to select this over the other version of the same meat, which comes with, yes, butter-herb sauce and regular, frozen fries. The steak was tender (though rarer than ordered), and bathed in a smooth brandy-cream sauce that tempered the piquant green, black, and pink peppercorns. About ten coin-size carrot slices came fussily piled into a pyramid shape next to the potatoes. What I prefer and would expect from an informal brasserie is for the carrots to slide from pan to plate: hot, untouched, and in gloriously random fashion.

The one thing the Riviera does consistently is confound expectations. I figured the hamburger "Eden Roc" would be something special, partly because they bothered to give it a name (after the Eden Roc hotel in Cap d'Antibes, where new chef Stephane Galiana worked prior to coming here), and also because it's the sort of food a brasserie normally serves. (The Brasserie in New York is famous for its burger, which weighs about a pound and costs about that weight in gold.) Sorry to say that the Eden Roc burger was the frozen preformed patty found in diners, coffee shops, and fast-food chains across America. Accompanying fries were not Pont Neuf, but skinny, crunchy, and abundantly portioned. "Fried onions" were supposed to come with the burger, but again that treacherous menu scribe tricked us into a raw deal: The onions were uncooked.

The cappuccino was excellent, as was a pear tart with a flaky, rectangular crust, a thin layer of custard, and caramelized slices of ripe pear. A more apropos finish to our meal, however, were the two small scoops of vanilla ice cream with dried apple, fresh apple, and apple syrup; the garnishings were delicious, the ice cream of the sort that's sold in the supermarket for 99 cents per metric ton. In other words, like the butter, inferior in quality and taste. What were they thinking?

Riviera Brasserie
901 S Miami Ave; 305-379-8988. Open for lunch Mon through Fri from 11:00 a.m till 3:00 p.m.; dinner Mon through Sat from 6:00 till 10:00 p.m.

Salade nicoise $7.95
Penne with pesto sauce $7.45
Grilled salmon $12.95
Steak with three-peppercorn sauce $19.95
Pear tart $5.

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