RSVP, a French restaurant in West Cornwall, isn’t for everyone, but it’s an absolute gift to those who are right for it. I wouldn’t be surprised if its owners—Guy Birster and Charles Cilona—would prefer not to have media coverage of their restaurant, because its seating capacity is very limited and it has developed a loyal cadre of customers who love it, understand it and are well-suited to the dining experience it offers.
RSVP—or “répondez s’il vous plait”—roughly translates “reply if you please,” but it’s actually intended by the French more as an imperative than a suggestion. I suggest you don’t RSVP if you:
- can’t be punctual
- are in a rush
- need your hand held throughout dinner
- require cellular service
- can’t entertain yourself
- can’t approach an intriguing dining experience as an end in itself
- don’t have an open palate
- have a lot of special dietary needs
- can’t surrender control to a talented chef
- don’t love French food
- don’t like BYOB
- intend to bring young children
- insist on paying with plastic
- ever fail to show up for a reservation without giving a restaurant plenty of notice
- are a humorless supporter of the current POTUS
If you have checked off none of those boxes and are still with me, you may find dining at RSVP a unique and rewarding experience.
RSVP is open for dinner Thursday through Sunday. Its website describes RSVP as a “‘special concept’ French restaurant… [offering a] carefully selected five-course, prix-fixe meal. Alcohol is BYOB only, with no corkage fee.”
Except for a handsome lad washing dishes, RSVP is strictly a two-man operation. Birster, a seasoned chef hailing from near Dijon in Burgundy, handles the back of the house, his partner, Cilona, a creative person raised in Chicago, the front. They met in the late 1980s at a Pasadena restaurant where Birster was the chef and Cilona worked in the front of the house. They moved to Litchfield County in 1993, opening a full-service restaurant called Brookside Bistro. In 2001, they opened RSVP with its much more narrowly defined mission, pulling down scores as high as 29/30 from Zagat Survey (I was the Westchester editor for three years).
The five courses typically comprise an amuse course, a soup course, a fish course, a meat course and a dessert course ($110 per person all-inclusive, paid in cash). Bread is good and generous, and portions are not especially “nouvelle,” resulting in a fully satisfying meal.
During our visit, there were actually six courses, counting the amuse. Our amuse course featured an incredible Kobe beef slider topped with caramelized onion and plated with gaufrette potatoes and a sumptuous sauce combining fresh mayonnaise and oyster sauce. Our second course, Cilona told us, “is normally a soup, but Guy decided to make frisée aux lardons.” Birster’s intriguing version, which included diced fried potato, was capped with a wonderful deep-fried, poached egg.
Our third course presented delicate homemade duck confit ravioli with chanterelle mushrooms and snap peas, which I noted as a candidate for my upcoming best pasta of the year award. Probably explaining why the soup course gave way to salad, our fourth course was a bouillabaisse with monkfish, littleneck clams and lobster. It was delightful and based not in a concentrated seafood stock but in a fresh vegetal mirepoix that, from our inside table, put Birster’s knife skills on full display.
Our fifth course showcased a succulent lamb rib chop in sauce Basquaise plated with a sunchoke (Jerusalem artichoke) purée. And finally, our dessert course—the coup de grâce—teamed up a small brownie topped with chocolate mousse and a drunken cherry with a miniature tarte Tatin topped with vanilla ice cream and fragments of spun sugar.
A word or two about wines. You can see from my rotator photo of wines near a lamp that some pretty extreme bottles have been opened at RSVP (e.g. a 1959 Château Leoville-Las Cases “Grand Vin de Leoville,” Saint-Julien, France), even for a seasoned wine pro like myself. But dining at RSVP is not a competition. I brought a modest, but terrific, 2017 Brigaldara Soave, Veneto, Italy, because my companion doesn’t drink red wine. If you have several wine drinkers in your party, you can do what the table outside our window did—bring several bottles, starting with a sparkling wine, then proceeding to white and red. Hell, you can go all the way and finish with a good Sauternes.
But if you’re a typical couple for whom a shared bottle is about right, especially considering a return drive from the middle of nowhere, think a modest lighter red with the flexibility to accompany all the courses. I’d recommend:
- a pretty Valpolicella (Brigaldara)
- a nice Chianti (Castello di Monsanto “Monrosso”)
- a prototypical Oregon Pinot Noir (Erath)
- an elegant Crianza (Añares)
- a balanced California Cab (Cabrillo)
- a people-pleasing Cerasuola di Vittoria (Bortolone)
For open-minded connoisseurs of good food, dining at RSVP is a uniquely pleasurable experience. It remains to be seen how cold weather and our ongoing health crisis will affect the restaurant’s plans. Always call ahead to RSVP.