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French, Italian and Moroccan foods meet in a pleasant setting at Rivah Bistro.

Casual Comforts

The name is a bit self-conscious, and the reference out of tune — the "rivah" isn't the one that runs through Richmond, it's the one Richmonders go to on the weekends. But once you're inside, Rivah Bistro offers a texture that conveys a self-possession and sense of place that the name doesn't carry.

Part of that is the attention that the well-tailored Moroccan co-owner Kahlid Bennajma gives every last detail as he cruises the dining room in search of maladjustment, checking in with diners, smoothing a linen, straightening a rose. Though Rivah Bistro is an everyday place, this level of quiet exactitude is a welcome addition to the category.

Bennajma's need for order doesn't interfere with Rivah Bistro's generally relaxed atmosphere, though. In fact, it helps. After all, no one ever faults you for being slightly overdressed. Think Cafe Rick and "Casablanca" on casual Friday — blue gingham-checked tablecloths topped with white paper, brushed steel chairs, open collars, indirect lighting amplified by subtle yellow walls, the sound of soft piano music bridging the momentary pause in conversation. When everything else around you is chaos, it is uplifting to dine in such a setting.

Chef Chafik, who is Moroccan, has command of the kitchen under the direction of French-Moroccan Executive Chef Samad Benzari of Bistro Bistro in Northern Virginia. And their most interesting contributions to Richmond's culinary palate are the Moroccan dishes: merguez, a soft and warmly spiced Moroccan lamb sausage served with a smokey tomato coulis, and harissa — not always on the menu — an all-purpose puree of pepper, oil, garlic, coriander and cumin, that is transformed into a soup. Unfortunately this is where Morocco ends.

They also make some delicious and fresh desserts ($4 - $7), like fresh sorbet shaped into a small pyramid and capped with a delicate chocolate shell, and a vanilla creme brulee that is absolutely a point.

The rest of the menu is a tour of comforts both French and Italian, comfortably priced from $10 to $18: onion soup, nicely gratineed; pork loin with baked apples; baked chicken (an occasional special) with mashed potatoes and jus deglaze; plus a range of scallopine-cut veal and chicken in a variety of styles and sauces — saltimboca, Toscan, cognac and Marsala. Virginia being a mid-Atlantic state, crab cakes are everywhere but their reputation is saved here by the absence of filler and the presence of a nicely done mushroom risotto. And we've twice been unable to resist the mussels mariniere, as much for the moules themselves — farm raised, clean and sweet — as for the simple garlic white-wine broth and the second basket of fresh-baked baguettes to soak it up.

The change of seasons and menus should see the addition of a line of hearty winter soups, and one hopes that as things settle in, there might be a little more adventure on the road to Morocco. Still, on a recent Friday night, with a delicious veal saltimboca on order, a lively crowd, good friends and a little piano music in the background, life was good.

Rivah Bistro
1417 E. Cary St.
Monday - Thursday, 11:30 a.m. - 10 p.m.
Friday - Saturday, 11:30 a.m. - 11 p.m.
Sunday, 10:30 a.m. - 9 p.m.

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