Le Rendez-Vous’s location (Kenilworth’s main drag), size (36 seats) and setting (shopworn Gallic in a 95-year-old storefront) all presage nothing more than a low-key neighborhood French bistro. But its true nature—once you get past the Clark Kent externals—is impressive. Albeit on a modest scale, it’s a fine-dining destination where quality ingredients meet sure-handed expertise in the kitchen of chef/owner Philippe Lièvre.
Lièvre, 42, started as sous chef when this BYO was founded in 1996 by his good friend Sami El-Sawi, along with El-Sawi’s brother, Walaa, and Sami’s wife, Beatrice Wandelmer. The small corner restaurant quickly gained a following. “Back then there was no competition,” laughs this native Frenchman who trained in Nice but, he says, had a lifelong dream of coming to the United States. “And it was very cheap! Sami’s concept was French food for everybody.”
Fast-forward seven years, and Lièvre buys the place from El-Sawi and Wandelmer, who eventually return to her hometown of Toulouse to open a restaurant. Jump to early last year, and the couple returns to the United States, where Wandelmer assists in the dining room of Le Rendez-Vous on Saturday nights and does so masterfully.
The clientele these days, reports the buoyant, witty Lièvre, who is known for schmoozing with customers in two languages, is “about 50 percent from the days of Sami and Beatrice, 40 percent my own regulars and 10 percent what I call ‘the curious.’” Asked how the economy has affected business, he says, “Four years ago I was laughing at restaurants that were closing. Now I’m not laughing.” But then he does laugh, adding, “I’ve been eating a lot of pasta lately. Although, I admit, sometimes with European butter.”
Le Rendez-Vous’s menu does not include pasta but does encompass all the expected dishes—escargot, foie gras, bouillabaisse, duck, crème brûlée. Sometimes the preparation hews to tradition: Rabbit, for example, is braised to tender perfection in a soulful, mushroom jus studded with baby vegetables and potatoes classically turned to resemble mini-footballs. Usually, though, Lièvre mixes things up, employing unexpected ingredients with flair, like the braised yucca and grilled pineapple he juxtaposes with a winning pan-seared duck breast. Likewise, a starter of several small-bore merguez sausages arrives in a tiny black iron skillet on a bed of kicky Lebanese tabbouleh that seems more than the sum of its parts. Lièvre credits El-Sawi for this: “Sami is from Egypt; he taught me how to use cumin.”
Here, snails are anything but a rubbery, garlic-heavy cliché. Toothsome specimens are slicked with a pungent sauce of olives, mushrooms and fava beans, every lick of which demands to be mopped up with the restaurant’s excellent bread from Newark’s Paramount Bakery. The ever-changing amuse is invariably a simple but palate-awakening concoction, to wit: a small brandy snifter holding improbably flavorful cream of romaine and red pepper soup.
Lièvre’s bouillabaisse has star power, literally and figuratively. It comes in a white-rimmed bowl, the depression of which forms a five-pointed star. The stellar soup properly contains at least three kinds of fish (e.g., red snapper, striped bass and tuna) as well as scallops, shrimp, favas, carrots and potatoes in saffron-scented tomato broth that is an exemplar of restraint. Creamy pink rouille—not overly garlicky—is served on the side.
If the bouillabaisse doesn’t put you in a South-of-France mood, the small, shabby-chic room will. One wall is brick; the rest are painted a shade that may have at one time been the color of a fading Mediterranean sunset. A mishmash of diminutive chandeliers dangles from the ceiling. Large terra-cotta tiles, set diagonally into the floor, hold assorted café chairs and vintage sideboards. While these exude rustic charm, the room could use sprucing up.
Service, under the watchful eye of the charming Wandelmer, puts that of more formal, more ambitious restaurants to shame. Cutlery is changed with each course. Order the hanger steak with frites and a Laguiole steak knife appears at your place. We brought an array of wines over the course of our visits, ranging from bubblies to whites and reds, and without fail the appropriate wine glass appeared for each; they were maintained at the proper temperatures; and they reappeared at our table at precisely the right intervals.
Given the popularity of this restaurant as well as its diminutive size and abundance of hard surfaces, it should come as no surprise that noise can be a problem. However, it never rises to the shouting stage. Another drawback is the price of dinner which, while fully warranted, does put Le Rendez-Vous into the “special” rather than “weeknight” category for many.
About that aforementioned hanger steak: It was superb on both visits, and its haystack of crispy, salty frites was addictive. Rich and meaty duck-leg confit has its own impressive crunch with a Parmesan chip. Like all main dishes here, the confit comes fully rounded out, in this case with a fricassee of chanterelles and a pile of lightly dressed arugula. As might be expected, cheese, dessert and coffee are not afterthoughts.
Lavender-and-chocolate-layered crème brûlée improves upon a beloved classic, and if a crepe of any sort is on offer, get it.