The eclectic main dining room at Rouge. JANANNE ABEL|WESTMORE NEWS
The eclectic main dining room at Rouge.

After four years, diners can say adios to Lolita Cocina & Tequila Bar, located just across the Mill Street Bridge in Byram, and bonjour to Rouge Brasserie and Oyster Bar. As of Nov. 1, Rouge opened at the same 230 Mill St. location as Lolita, the identical spot that had housed That Little Italian Restaurant for many years.

The owner, cb5 Hospitality Consulting, a company that creates restaurants around the world for specialty clients-from the initial concept through the design, execution and refinement- hasn't changed. Cb5's latest projects include the Fairmont Copley Hotel in Boston, Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D. C., and the company just opened its own restaurant in Maui called Sugar House.

"We sold the brand which we don't usually do," said 55-year-old Jody Pennette of Greenwich, founder of cb5 and the principal owner of Lolita/ now Rouge. "Lolita was kind of an indulgency- my own love of

loud music and dark rooms. It spawned several other restaurants of the brand mostly in the Boston area. They elected to expand the brand."

Pennette, who has been in the business of creating restaurants for 35 years, said the timing was right because he had fallen in love with the Mill Street

building but was concerned that Lolita had turned into more of a bar than the Mexican restaurant it was originally intended to be. So in 12 days he and his cb5 team changed the name and the concept from outrageous to humble, "a perfect date restaurant" and "out of the way cozy place."

Although there are apparently several other

French brasseries in Greenwich, Rouge is in closest proximity to our readers in Port Chester and Rye Brook-just

across the river, in fact. Besides a tiny crêperie, there hasn't been a French restaurant in Port Chester since Le Radis Blanc (now J T Straw's Bar & Grill), and that was long before the village became the so-called restaurant capital of Westchester.

A decade ago cb5 owned the hugely successful Bleu on Greenwich Avenue, and Rouge is an attempt to bring back that cool establishment in a not-so-subtle way.

The vibrant color for which the restaurant is named has not been played up in the décor, however, because other than the three red chandeliers that remain in the bar from Lolita, which Pennette called "the lipstick," the color scheme centers around black, white and gray.

"The room is designed to make people look good," he said.

Although pricey (what French restaurant isn't?), Rouge delivers on its promise of being a cozy, romantic place to dine, and the food is incredible, with some of my favorite French dishes and touches. Having been partial to French food since I decided to major in French in college and then spent my junior year in France, I find this new incarnation of Lolita exciting.

First of all, it's brighter so you can read the menu and see what you're eating. And yet the dining room glimmers with the light of candles on every table, adding that romantic touch.

According to Pennette, the average price of a meal at Rouge is $47, and my experience bore that out. The two meals I shared with my husband obviously hovered around that price as our checks for two came to $113.80 and $101.04.

After a few bad experiences, I now shy away from raw clams and oysters, so a good portion of the Aquatique side of the menu is out for me. But other diners raved about the beautiful plateaux de fruit de mer ($45 petite, $85 grande). Besides oysters du jour at market price and little neck clams at $11, there is also shrimp cocktail ($18), iced lobster and blue crab cocktail ($21), fish eggs and chips ($25) and Caviar Classique (iced American caviar with traditional garnishes) at $45 per ounce for freshwater sturgeon and $120 per ounce for Siberian sturgeon.

Eclectic décor

You can enjoy any of these delicacies from the sea at any table in the restaurant or, if you want to be especially decadent, you can savor them along with a glass of wine or champagne at the glamorous Aquatique bar one level up from the main dining room. It has a white marble top and is surrounded by white subway tile. On an ornate mirror behind the bar the word "Aquatique" is spelled out in gold lettering along with the offerings mentioned above.

On this level, which Pennette called a salon, comfortable


off-white chairs and round black ottomans plus a black semicircular booth of sorts surrounding a small white marble table provide space to sip cocktails or feast on fruits de mer.

Behind the booth, ornate white mirrors hang on the walls around a long table for 12 which can accommodate large groups.

"Upstairs we had some fun," said Pennette of the décor, which is well lit by natural light during the daylight hours. Downstairs, he said, is like Spring Street in New York City. For the bar through which you generally enter the restaurant, he was looking for a "neighborhood bar feel."

For people who make their living creating restaurants, the cb5 team was able to whip this transformed décor together in no time-originally planning on 30 days but completing it in only 12. In recent days they were briefly stymied by the Town of Greenwich for failing to get the proper permits needed for the conversion, a glitch that should have been resolved by the time of this reading.

In the main dining room off the bar, a small mirror front and center on a shiny white tiled wall welcomes customers with the French greeting "Bienvenue tout le monde" scrawled in white marker.

Besides the tile, the walls combine diverse materials with varying textures: stucco, red brick, white brick and wainscoting.

Black banquettes accented with numerous buttons line the walls. Lots of beige hanging lights resemble upside down lampshades. Candles on most tables are traditional low votives, but tall silver candlesticks adorn a heavy wooden communal table with velvet-covered, high-backed chairs. This table existed at Lolita but was moved to a different spot.

In one corner layers of dripped white wax melted one on top of the other around a candelabra create an interesting sculpture, several others of which are found in the salon/ oyster bar.

White roses stuck in flower tubes line the long stucco wall.

The floor features large planks of rustic-looking wood, and a spiked wrought iron fence lines the walkway to the oyster bar above, a carryover from Lolita.

Lace curtains hang at the windows at the front of the space facing the sidewalk in both the dining room and bar where a few cozy tables for two or three are situated. White lilies in a vase sit on a table in another alcove. Tables are draped with white cloths covered with white paper and set with matching napkins accented with blue stripes.

The entire restaurant seats 90, 24 of those in a private room a few steps above the bar.

Besides the red chandeliers, the narrow neighborhood bar is simply black and brown- black stools with wooden bases, dark brown ornately decorated cabinetry around mirrors where glasses and wine bottles line the shelves. The bar top is painted black while the front features brownish bronze-colored textured metal.

Beige curtains are pulled back to divide the bar from the dining room.

Restaurant still evolving

In some ways Rouge, only open for three weeks, is still evolving, or at least it has been since the beginning of the month.

"The only thing unfinished are the bathrooms," said Pennette. "We had some custom paper ordered-kind of an indulgence." I can't wait to see it.

Besides that, the wine list has been in the making. On my two visits up to this point, the waitress rattled off a handful of red and white wines. Since then, however, a list with about 40 varieties has been developed by chef Josh Moulton, who is also a sommelier.

"Josh picked special bottles to match his food," said Pennette. They will range in price from $18 to $65 with a few higher-priced ones as well, all hailing from France and California.

The dessert concept has also been fluctuating. On my first visit the first Saturday the new restaurant was open, a few choices of cake were offered.

"The first notion was of 'let them eat cake,'" said Pennette, referring to Marie Antoinette's famous phrase, "so we went to a local cake maker."

For our next meal at Rouge almost two weeks later, my husband and I were offered a choice of chocolate or vanilla and were surprised with tiny crocks of lovely pot de crème which were on the house. "Let's just give them something sweet" was the second concept.

"We finally elected to create a dessert menu," said Pennette, which should be ready by now. It will include Momofoku cookies from the Milk Bar Bakery in New York City in a variety of flavors: corn, chocolate, compost and blueberry cream; classic crème brulée, Tarte Tatin (a French upside down apple tart), Cherry Clafoutis (a French dessert consisting of fresh sweet cherries suspended in a pancake-like batter served warm) and a classic three-tier butter cream birthday cake with sprinkles, candles and fun.

A trademark of cb5 restaurants is to serve flavored cotton candy at the end of the meal. On my first visit, an apple-flavored swirl of green cotton candy appeared after the dessert. It didn't seem to go. Pennette said a cinnamon-flavored red version of the decadent panache is being developed. That sounds sexy and yummy to me, but the idea is fun more than anything else.

Up until now, there have been no daily specials, but they will be added as the holidays approach and guests will have sampled the menu a few times. Seasonal fish and shellfish, lamb, rabbit and boar are examples of likely featured specials.

Currently Rouge is only open for dinner six nights a week: Tuesday through Sunday from 5:30 to 11 p. m. However, after Thanksgiving, Sunday brunch will be added. "It's meant to be a tea party-like a bagatelle," said Pennette. "A brunch where people come in to spend from noon to 5:00 to drink champagne. It's more like an event. If it happens, it happens." However, he added, if it doesn't, "we would adjust it" and "add in the usual suspects to round out your breakfast."

I guess we'll have to wait and see how the brunch takes shape.

The chef is key

Josh Moulton has been with cb5 for 17 years as one of the company's development chefs. Recently he and his wife started a family, so, with a baby, it made sense for the Manhattan resident to settle down to work in one location.

"Having him is key," said Pennette. "He called six butchers to get a special cut of meat for the Steak Frites ($27). He put expertise and passion into a very simple menu. He puts a lot of thought into the details."

Before joining cb5, Moulton worked at Union Square Café and as service director at Gramercy Tavern, both in New York City.

Dinner for two

As I said, I shared my first meal with my husband at Rouge on the first Saturday it was open.

A plate with a baby baguette, crock of butter, French breakfast radishes and a handful of cornichons appeared-so very French!

A bottle of water with a flip cap was left on the table, but our glasses were regularly refilled by our waitress.

The butter isn't just ordinary either. It is light and delish, an in-house blend of European style butter and crème fraiche.

We asked for more bread and got two baby baguettes on a plate with more butter.

The Escargots Bourgignon ($14) brought 3-4 snails in a delicious garlic butter sauce with parsley and a little lemon juice on each of three pieces of toasted French country bread. My only complaint: I would have preferred a stronger taste of garlic.

Salade Maison ($10) combined small organic bibb lettuce called "little gem," shaved gruyere and a delightful vinaigrette dressing of champagne vinegar, shallots, Dijon mustard, thyme and olive oil.

The Short Rib Bourgignon ($26) was among the best entrées I've ever tasted. A large piece of meat with no bones, tender and cooked to perfection, arrived, having been simmered in red wine with pearl onions. It came on a bed of creamy truffled mashed potatoes (which have truffle oil in them) with the sauce swimming around them. Besides the whole tender onions, mushrooms and carrots flavored the savory Bourgignon sauce.

My husband loves his mussels and was plenty happy with the Moules Frites ($19), a good portion of meaty mussels cooked in white wine, garlic and fine herbs, and a metal basket filled with crunchy fries. I called the dipping sauce for the fries smoky with a little kick and later found it to be made with garlic, lemon and smoked paprika mayo.

A separate dish was provided for the shells as well as a half a lemon covered in cheesecloth to remove the fishy smell from your hands.

A glass of chardonnay and another of a red wine blend from the province of Rhône (each $11) complemented our meals.

For dessert, a large slice of chocolate layer cake with fudge between the layers was served on a plate with a scrumptious cream under it ($10) to make it extra moist.

I took home some of the short rib as well as the cake and enjoyed them thoroughly the next day.

Coffee ($3) is served in large white cups with your choice of white or brown sugar cubes.

The green apple-flavored cotton candy topped off our meal, which totaled $113.80.

We had the same waitress on both of our visits who was pleasant and attentive without hovering.

Other recommendations

I can also recommend the Onion Soup Gratinée ($9) and Classic Steak Tartare for appetizer. The latter is made with hand chopped Angus tenderloin tossed with a sauce of whole grain mustard, Worcestershire, tabasco, cognac, cooked egg yolk, parsley, lemon, salt and pepper served with three pieces of charred country toast ($18). A large portion, the amount of steak tartare exceeded what could fit on the toasted bread, so I had to leave some behind.

For entrée, I loved the Skate Meuniere ($25), two good-sized pieces of white fish sautéed in a tangy lemon butter sauce nicely presented with parsley new potatoes flanking perfectly cooked baby string beans ($25). The Poulet en Croute ($23), to be renamed simply Chicken Pot Pie, according to Pennette, was also excellent. Jody said this good winter dish was made just for him. It features chunks of chicken in a delicate sauce with mushrooms, onions, carrots and peas served in a large white crock with a hat of flakey puff pastry baked over the top.

Make your reservation today

Lolita didn't take reservations, but Rouge does. Since it is already starting to catch on, my recommendation is to make a reservation soon at Rouge Brasserie and Oyster Bar (203-813-3555); however, this fine French brasserie will not be open for Thanksgiving. When you do get a reservation, you can park your car on Mill Street if you can find a space or pull into the entrance to the municipal lot behind the restaurant where there is plenty of free parking. You then walk along an attractive alleyway past the restaurant's marvelous outdoor patio to the front door. Although it's too cold to eat outside this time of year, so far the tables are still lit with candles to provide a warm atmosphere.