Saying that Gerard’s is the best French restaurant in Riverside—which is what the “Best Of” lists always say—isn’t really saying much. For one thing, “Best Of” lists are usually more about generating advertising revenue for the publications that create them than ferreting out premier establishments from a thicket of contenders. For another, Gerard’s happens to be Riverside’s only French restaurant.
None of this–neither the cynical facts of marketing nor the culinary minimalism of Riverside–is Gerard’s’ fault. If this fine bistro were one of a dozen French joints, I’d be willing to bet the “best” moniker would still hold.
Gerard’s is what laymen might call a nice restaurant. A fancy restaurant. Fancy enough to make your spine straighten as you unfold your crisp white napkin. Fancy enough to make your pinky extend reflexively as you and your dining partner clink wine glasses. Fancy enough that the atmosphere of staid, mimicked elegance—the glass chandeliers, the Monet prints, the overwhelmingly floral valances—doesn’t seem hokey. No, it seems nice.
Warm and intimate as it is, however, the ambience is a small, almost inconsequential sideshow to the best reason to visit Gerard’s: the food rocks.
We began a recent Saturday dinner with an appetizer from a menu stocked with a tantalizing variety of starters that were all very reasonably priced for the quality ($5.25-8.50). Safe bets include the cheese and fruit plate, and the shrimp doused in sherry wine and garlic cream. For more daring guests, there is also an array of former swamp-dwellers, ranging from snails (Escargots de Bourgogne), to frog legs (Grenouilles à la Meuniére), to Louisiana alligator (Brochette de Crocodile). We opted for the “Champigons Maison,” a generous serving of button mushrooms filled with garlic butter, capped with parmesan, and baked in white wine. The texture was velvety, and the taste melt-in-your mouth wonderful—the perfect primer for a rusty palette.
Once our appetizer plate was taken away, we waited for our next course…and waited, and waited. The service at Gerard’s, while excellent in every other way, is a bit leisurely. This is the European way, of course, but American diners—typical American diners, anyway—should adjust their expectations or risk annoyance. If you’re like me, though, this adjustment will be relatively easy; when your food arrives hot and nearly perfect, the wait seems more than worth it.
Entrees include a choice of soup or salad. I consider the spinach salad an absolute must. Assembled tableside, it consists of a fluffy bed of fresh spinach (scare’s over, kids—everybody back in the water!) splashed with lemon, lathered in a dressing of red wine vinegar and Worcestershire, and “deglazed” (that’s the technical term for that trick where they set the pan on fire) with brandy. Large cubes of fresh bacon add texture and a rich, smoky flavor. But we also sampled the soup du jour—Autumn Fruit. A pulpy, nuclear-orange concoction made from mashed apples and persimmons, it might not be everyone’s preference. Still, we dug the creativity, and the surprising, refreshing juxtaposition of sweet, tangy fruit with a topping of rich parmesan croutons.
Gerard’s entrée menu is quite varied, with an array of seafood, vegetarian, beef, and wild game, all running an average of $20 to $30 a plate. The quail (two boneless birds stuffed with a mixture of couscous and sun-dried cherries) is a perennial favorite, and Chef Bill Goff—who trained under famed chef Pascal Olhats—tells us that customer demand has obliged him to keep the rack of lamb recipe unchanged for years as well.
We tried three entrees—the king salmon filet, chicken Marie Antoinette, and the pork tenderloin. The latter (Confit de Porc) is a house specialty. Marinated in thyme, rosemary, and garlic, the tender meat is poached in pork fat and served in a bigarad sauce. This citrusy sauce is usually reserved for duck—it’s what goes into duck al’ orange—but Goff’s decision to use it with tenderloin is both a surprise and a success.
For chicken-lovers, the Marie Antoinette is a good bet—topped with a cream sauce with mushrooms, overlaid with a thick layer of Swiss cheese, and baked so that the mushroom flavor soaks into the chicken. The restaurant’s best fish dish is the wild king salmon, which is coated with an herb crust, sautéed in a Béarnaise sauce, and served with savory asparagus and a jasmine rice blend.
If you’re lucky enough to have room for dessert, you can’t go wrong with the warm cherries jubilee or the crème brulee. If not, there’s always next time. After all, the best French restaurant in the whole city surely deserves more than one visit.