Le Rivage has something besides its name in common with the waterfront: its higher moments, and a few lower.
Peering out over the Maine Avenue wharf (come spring, when the balcony opens, it may be a close call between the Hains Point view and the National Airport roar), Le Rivage is the newest step in the upscaling of the Southwest Hogate's/Flagship strip.
Seafood is still the name of the game ("specializing in seafood," as the advertisements say), but at Le Rivage, to parlez francais is to parlay a few francs.
This is no fried family fare, but flounder amandine and cassoulet Norfolk, a translated crab that pinches more at $14.95. Some nights, dinner is a pearl; others, it's just a trifle plain.
Appetizers include oysters and clams on the half shell, baked oysters with orange butter and baked mussels with garlic butter.
Gravlax (cured salmon) is fine-textured and generously sliced, but ladled with a slightly perplexing cumberland-style sauce that downplays the horseradish.
Rillette des deux saumons (mousse of poached and smoked salmons) exemplifies the kitchen's strongest and weakest points -- high technique, and low/no salt. It is extraordinarily smooth and sturdy without being heavy, but except for the dice of smoked salmon, it is direly underseasoned; and the butterfat content, while evidence of good intentions, is cloying.
Soup of the day (leek and potato, for example) can be rewarding, but the crab bisque, a menu regular, is so rich and persuasive that it's hard to look elsewhere.
At lunch the salads include an aristocratic coquille au vinaigre de frambois (scallops in raspberry vinegar) and duck confit. At night, the best bets are caesar salad and spinach with chunks of roquefort cheese, each plate of which could serve two.
Counting the specials, Le Rivage usually musters a half-dozen fish dishes and an equal number of meat, but except for scallops (dressed in hazelnut butter) there is a dearth of shellfish -- no lobster, no crawfish, crab meat but no crabs.
The regular menu includes a moist (just slightly oily) trout stuffed with smoked salmon mousse; the specials recently included a first-class takeoff of rockfish stuffed with a superb sea bass mousse.
Souffles and mousse are a habit here: On two recent occasions, the garnitures were identical, zucchini mousse (once good and once great) and mixed red and green noodles.
There is blessedly no surf-and-turf here, but there is a chicken breast stuffed with crab meat that is neither fish nor fowl: The stuffing is rather like crabcake mix, and the chicken dull.
Sweetbreads, another special, were without a trace of iodine, perfectly cooked and served in a first-class pastry shell, but dressed in the blandest of sauces.
There are minor slips of service, all easily remedied by practice -- a repeated failure to offer fresh pepper, for example, and the substitution of one bottle of meursault for another (although the first one, bin number and price, appeared on the check).
Desserts can be therapeutic, however, especially the profiteroles (little cream puff-sized pastries with ice cream and semi-sweet chocolate sauce and the hard meringue with blueberries and strawberry sauce (not a regular offering, unfortunately).
Le Rivage is pretty pricey, and the menu still a little dicey. But down on the waterfront, it's a contender.