'Berry' cordial: Cassis opens on Water Street

Bizou veteran chef Sean Lawford unveiled Cassis, his much-awaited new restaurant in the old Metro space, Tuesday, February 8. After an impressively short two-month renovation, this spacious new bistro– named after the French seaside town and berry cordial– is ready to welcome Bizou and Metropolitain fans as well as new admirers.

Though Lawford, the owner and executive chef, has stripped away walls, furniture, and many other elements of the previous restaurant, he has also added layers– layers of atmosphere, layers of flavor, and– especially on the striking interior walls– layers of paint.

The dining room is open, the kitchen is visible up behind the curvy new bar, the lighting is dim and sexy, and the foodРfrom the creamy butternut squash and cinnamon soup to the tender beef burgundy to the cool cr̬me bruleeРis both sophisticated and satisfying.

Maybe it's because Bizou's visible kitchen helped me appreciate the incredible stamina involved in cooking on a busy night, but Lawford has always reminded me of a young version of Anthony Bordain, author of Restaurant Confidential and chef of the classic French bistro Les Halles.

As the Cassis menu reveals, it's clear the two cooks share more than a fondness for classic, comforting cuisine. As Bourdain writes near the end of his shocking bestseller: "All cooks are sentimental fools. And in the end maybe it is all about the food."


Rivanna Grill– bistro sires swank catering company!

 Just last Thursday, a unique new catering company– Ciao! Distinctive Catering and Themed Events– kicked off its first party season with a swank little cocktail party at the Rivanna Grill.

Despite the snow, the parking lot on this otherwise woodsy stretch of 29 North overflowed with salt-streaked cars. Inside the spare candle-lit dining room and bar, diners nibbled on a collection of signature hors d'oeuvres– tuna tartare on a chile tortilla crisp, mini crab cakes with lemon caper aioli, Indonesian beef skewers, various sushi rolls. Judging from the number of red-hued martini glasses I spotted around the room, the drink of choice was clearly the Ciao! Martini– made with pomegranate juice.

Owned and operated by the enthusiastic and accomplished team of Monica Jordan and Christian Trendel, Ciao! specializes in events with a theme i.e. Roaring Twenties, Hawaiian Luau, Spa Relaxation, Casino Night.

Though many restaurants in town– from Q'Doba and Panera to Ciboulette and Downtown Thai– offer catering as a side-service, Ciao! is the only catering house I know that actually took over a restaurant: the Rivanna Grill.

To refresh your memory, Trendel discovered a dilapidated– actually, condemned– restaurant for sale on Seminole Trail back in 2003. Sensing it would make a perfect neighborhood bistro, he tackled the major job of gutting and transforming it into an elegant little eatery. After a slow start, the Rivanna Grill caught on and was consistently jammed on Fridays and Saturdays. However, weekdays were, to quote the chef, "depressingly dead."

Then, eureka! Using this weekly lull to their advantage, Trendel and Jordan came up with the idea of using the Rivanna Grill as both the kitchen and an event space for Ciao!

"Since there's such a shortage of spaces to host private events, we decided to merge Ciao! and the Rivanna Grill into a space that groups can rent out for art showings, private dinners, cocktail parties, showers, and the like," Trendel says.

As for all you Rivanna Grill regulars, don't despair. Trendel says that, following some upgrades to the dining room, the restaurant will be open on Friday and Saturday evenings for diners with a reservation. Since the restaurant is always available for Ciao! private parties, it's best to call first– otherwise you might be the only uninvited guest!

Say Ciao! Christian Trendel and Monica Jordan with a Ciao! martini