At 48° — unusually warm for mid-January — fog was settling over us as we headed out for dinner about 6:30 PM Saturday evening. We drove 36 miles south down Route 5 to Leonardtown, the seat of St. Mary’s County. Given the foggy conditions, I was glad we didn’t come across any Amish horse-and-buggies that the “Share the Road” signs warned us about. Our destination was La Rive Breton (LRB) restaurant (click here to see their listing in our Food & Drink Business Directory) , a newcomer to Southern Maryland. LRB’s team as listed on the bottom of the menu and on their website: Chef/Owner Brian Wilson and his brother General Manager/Owner Steven Wilson.
Open only a few months, LRB replaced Café Des Artistes, which closed last March after more than a decade in the same space. Leonardtown, an active port from colonial times until the early 1900s, is located on a stream called McIntosh Run, which empties into the Potomac River via Breton Bay, no doubt inspiring the restaurant’s name, which may be translated from the French as “The Breton Shore.”
Note: This restaurant was permanently closed as of July 30, 2017.
When we entered, the hostess greeted us in a friendly and professional fashion and quickly got us seated at a large, round four-top. After that, though, we were abandoned, while other diners nearby got seated, placed their orders and got their drinks. After a wait of perhaps 10 minutes, I got up and asked a busboy to let me speak to the manager.
She showed up quickly and already knew we had been ignored, and jumped in to apologize before I could even complain. She took our order herself, said she’d get our waitress to us, and told us she’d pay for our first round of drinks. Soon after, the hostess came by as well and apologized, saying she had told the staff there was “two at 11,” meaning there were two new customers at table 11, but apparently she wasn’t heard; she then said she’d cover the cost of our desserts. I have to say, two comped parts of our meal was more than expected, and was certainly appreciated.
My wife, Cindy, ordered a glass of Ballard Lane Cabernet Sauvignon, Steak Tartare (with harissa pepper aïoli, pickled cauliflower, crispy sunchoke chips, and turmeric crème) as a starter, and Pappardelle Pasta & Short Rib Ragout (with beech mushrooms, piquillo peppers, crispy kale, and Parmesan cheese) for her main course. I began with their Black Manhattan (George Dickel Rye, Peychaud’s Bitters, and Averna Amaro), and braised snails (with Parmesan potato purée, piquillo peppers, Kalamata olives, and garlic brown butter) for a starter, and Teres Major Steak (with Yukon Gold potato puree, Marsala mushrooms, salsify, Swiss chard, and a burgundy sauce) for my main course. (I have to say that their decision not to use capital letters in the dish descriptions of their menu drives me nuts!)
Our drinks were served along with individual portions of focaccia and butter. A waitress said the bread was made in-house. The focaccia tasted good, and the internal texture was decent, but it could have been a bit crustier — perhaps it needed just a bit more time in the oven. I truly enjoyed my Black Manhattan.
Although the restaurant’s name is French, their offerings are not limited to Gallic dishes, stating on their website that they “serve cuisine based on classical European methods and techniques, prepared and presented with a refreshingly modern and light approach.” You can see this from what we had. There is a fairly strong Italian vein running through the menu, along with the French.
We didn’t have to wait long for our starters, and avidly shared them. They were excellent! The Steak Tartare portion was very large, and Cindy wasn’t able to finish it, despite some help from me. My snails were tasty, but the real surprise was the olives, which, cooked, had a great depth of flavor. We ordered another round of drinks, and our main courses showed up soon after.
The main courses, too, were outstanding. The house-made papapardelle noodles were long and thick and really held the flavor of the meat and sauce. The sear on my steak was exquisite. Let me tell you this: Chef Brian Wilson knows how to cook. Cindy wasn’t able to finish her pasta, either, so we brought home nearly half of it. Cindy got a poached pear for dessert. I got a slice of chocolate cake. Both were delicious. Below is a photo gallery of our various dishes; just click on an image to enlarge and view the gallery.
La Rive Breton photo gallery
Even though the food and drinks were great, I have one other gripe (besides the focaccia crust): the prices. La Rive Breton is charging downtown D.C. prices for a restaurant in small-town Southern Maryland. The cost of living between the two locations are significantly different. Using data from City-Data.com, the average U.S. city is scored at 100, while in March, 2016 D.C.‘s score was 125.3 and Leonardtown’s was 85.8. In other words, an item costing $1.00 in the average city, will cost about $1.25 in D.C. and about $0.86 in Leonardtown. That means prices in Leonardtown should, on average, be about 65.5% of those in D.C.
In my research on LRB, I found mention that Chef Wilson has cooked at such places as 2941 in Falls Church, VA and Montmartre, on Capitol Hill in D.C. Here’s a quick comparison of some dishes and prices between LRB (as if based on cost of living vs. actual) and Montmartre, using menus both restaurants have currently posted online:
French Onion Soup
$10 at Montmartre; estimated cost-of-living LRB price about $7.00, but actually $9.00.
$9 at Montmartre; estimated cost-of-living LRB price about $6.00, but actually $12.
$12 at Montmartre; estimated cost-of-living LRB price about $8.50, but actually $12.
Seared Hanger Steak (Montmartre)/Teres Major Steak (LRB)
$25 at Montmartre; estimated cost-of-living LRB price about $17.00, but actually $26.
I will be the first to admit that this is not a 100% apples-to-apples comparison. Are the portions, ingredients, service, and experience the same? No, they are two different restaurants in two different locations. But I would think generally speaking, at least the costs of space rental and staffing should be less in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, than in downtown Washington, D.C.
What can be the explanation? Perhaps it’s LRB’s goal to become a destination experience, like the the Inn at Little Washington, in Washington, Virginia. There, customers are will go out of their way, and pay more, for the experience. Maybe start-up costs at LRB are high, or maybe the owners are looking to make a higher than typical profit. Perhaps it’s more expensive to obtain high-quality ingredients in Southern Maryland. That said, it’s odd that the prices in Leonardtown aren’t at least somewhat less than those in D.C.
It’s 15.7 miles from my home to Montmartre restaurant — about a 30 minute drive north. From home to La Rive Breton is 36.4 miles — about a 50 minute drive south. Next time I want good French-European food, which way shall I go? I will probably check the menu prices before hopping in the car. But the memory of such a great meal in Leonardtown will weigh heavily in the decision. ♦