Name: Larry the O
Occupation: Musician and Audio Professional
Favorite Restaurant: Rivoli Restaurant
Reviewed Rivoli Restaurant: Wednesday, March 7, 2012
I’ve been going to Rivoli since the late 90s, mostly for special occasions or business dinners. (The restaurant opened in ’94.) It became a favorite because it combined the two biggest factors in my restaurant enjoyment—first is food (handled by the kitchen of chef and co-founder Wendy Brucker) and second is service (front-of-house is run by Brucker’s co-founding partner Roscoe Skipper)—with an elegant yet relaxed environment. The consistency of the experience spread over years has always been particularly impressive. In fact, I have had the same server, a dapper gravel-voiced gentleman named Bill, on a number of visits spread over more than a few years.
The restaurant consists of a wine bar at the front door and a dining room with around 20 tables in back. The far side of the dining room consists of French doors and glass panels looking out into a small, lush garden hidden away behind fences and totally secret. The dining room itself has a nice, but low-key interior that shows Japanese influences in the paper globe lamps, slat ceiling, and bamboo paneling. It is a relaxed, convivial space, but not targeted at being a family place. I’ve had many fine times here, not the least of which being dining alone on New Year’s Eve one year, when, rather than getting forgotten in the crowd, I had several servers checking on me.
This particular visit, we happened to go, not on a weekend evening, but on a Wednesday evening, and on the early side at that, right at 6 PM. I went with my wife, Angela, who has been with me for several Rivoli adventures. One of the interesting aspects of going on a Wednesday was experiencing the team that steps in when the weekend team gets a night off. On this particular evening, we saw neither Brucker nor Skipper, though I have been greeted by Skipper on nearly every trip I’ve made there. Mid-week or not, the dining room was well-filled; there were few empty tables.
After getting in and getting seated, we were brought some fresh Acme bread with a cube of butter and a small cup of salt. I asked our server about one of the wines by the glass, and she did not seem to really know much about it. She did, however, quickly offer to bring me a taste, which certainly told the tale. She might have offered to get someone else who might know more. After tasting it, I was more curious, so I flagged down the maître d’ easily, and he did know more about the wine, which I expected, given that Skipper is a rather serious sommelier.
(Of course, Skipper is very concerned with proper pairing of wine and food, and I am a total heathen who picks a wine I’ll like and food I’ll like and is in hog heaven.)The Scholium Project “Gardens of Babylon” is a very big, fruit-forward (which I tend to like) Petite Sirah blend.
Brucker likes to mix consistency and change. There are a few appetizers and desserts that seem to always be on the menu. For the mains, there are usually the same basic anchors (beef, pork, fowl, fish or seafood, and a pasta dish), but the recipes change. Some recur, some don’t. We decided to get one appetizer we knew well and one we did not.
The old favorite appetizer was the artisanal cheese plate, a plate with small servings of three different fancy-pants cheeses, often regional in origin, accompanied by an absolutely splendid house-made currant-walnut bread, served in slices the size of those cut from a baguette (perhaps that’s how they bake them?). It’s actually on the dessert and cheese menu, but I have long ordered it as an appetizer and have yet to receive any rebuke. Worse yet, I always ask for a little extra bread. This night, the cheeses were Cowgirl Creamery’s rich Mt Tam, the Bellwether Farm sheep’s-milk San Andreas, and Laurel Chanel Cabecou, a soft chèvre. The range of softness from the triple-crème Mt Tam to the semi-firm San Andreas was very pleasing, and the plate worked beautifully with the wine I was drinking.
Usually, the cheeses are pointed out and identified when the plate is served, but this time they were not. Not much of a problem, really. It wasn’t hard to figure out and they were all scrumptious. The plate is fine for two; if you had three or four you might want to order two of them.
The other appetizer was pine nut and gnocchi semolina with chestnuts and a pear sauce. Yikes! The gnocchi had a creamy, polenta-like texture that just melted in my mouth, while the chestnuts had a soft chewiness to them.
For the mains, I ordered the chicken cooked two ways. Most times that I have been to Rivoli (in fact, all that I can recall) that dish has been available cooked with duck, not chicken. Duck can be tricky; it’s easy to have it be too fatty. There are a handful of places in the Bay Area that just have a great touch with it, and Rivoli is one of those. (Bay Wolf and Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen are two others.)
So, while I missed the duck, I decided to try the chicken. The two ways of cooking are grilled and sliced, and confit (cooked in fat). The slices were good, and the confit was well-executed, but I am a Maryland boy and fussy about my fried chicken preparations, so I was less impressed with the chicken cooked two ways than the duck. Still, with the potatoes, spinach, prosciutto, and sage that were in the dish, it was a pretty tasty meal.
My wife ordered the Dungeness crab and Bellwether Farm ricotta ravioli, and it was scrumptious. Rather than the small packet shape in which one often sees ravioli, these are large, almost like lasagna noodles folded over with filling. Depending on the crab, it can be a delicate flavor, and the preparation here, with Meyer lemon pasta and peas, accommodates that. On the whole, while Rivoli’s kitchen definitely knows how to spice, my impression is that the house style is not as forward as, say, a Thai or Indian restaurant; it’s more of a Cal-Med thing. It was one of those moments I was greedily glad that my wife has a comparatively small appetite.
We did, of course, order dessert. Naturally. I was curious about the warm pineapple upside down cake. There have been few occasions where I have had pineapple upside down cake taste like it came from anywhere other than Safeway. Having had many splendid desserts at Rivoli, I figured I’d take a shot on it. And it was gooooood. The cake is very moist, like a rum cake, and the pineapple is warm. Throw in the vanilla ice cream, toasted coconut, and stuff, and it was a lovely but not overly sugared treat.
The upside down cake went well with Rivoli’s coffee. I have been shocked at how often an otherwise excellent restaurant has lousy and/or weak coffee. Rivoli serves Thanskgiving coffee, which works fine for me. (At home I drink Moschetti, a little-known and most excellent roastery in Vallejo.)
The other dessert was the warm chocolate truffle torte. This is a hard-core choice, but, again, did not alienate me with gratuitous sweetness. It’s a cake-like texture and has intense chocolate flavor.
Rivoli is one of my favorite Bay Area special occasion spots, and while a few other visits have had a little higher polish shine than our Wednesday night excursion, it is still a place whose food and service both feel effective but relaxed.
Occupation: Reggio-Emiliano Teacher
Favorite Restaurant: The Chairman (Food Truck)
Reviewed Rivoli Restaurant: Tuesday, March 6, 2012
Just a short drive from Oakland and with free parking right in front, Rivoli makes a great first impression before even entering. Once inside the restaurant, we were greeted by a cheerful hostess and a bar tucked into the left corner with two adjoining tables placed along the side. Despite arriving early for our 7:30pm dinner on a Tuesday night, they took us right away. Once settled into the dining room my guest and I instantly realized we were the only spring chickens in this classy rooster house. We had not been expecting to dine in a booming hip café, however, we were noticeably the only twenty-somethings in the room, which give us a slight sense of awkwardness, though, it just may have been the fact that we came in on an unpopular Tuesday night.
The dining room was snug and the dim lighting set the mood for couples and intimate gatherings with a blushful garden glowing through the floor to ceiling windows, complementing the modestly adorned dining room. Our waitresses warmed up the room even more so with her charming character when she guided us through our menus. She even caught her self when her apron string slipped into a pitcher of water while refilling our glasses and quickly changed out our water. Once we had finally chosen what to have from a selective menu that changes every few weeks and an extensive wine list with a handful of cocktails, the service was prompt and our meals flowed effortlessly without being rushed through our courses.
We decided on the portabella mushroom fritters with an arugula salad dressed with a lightly salted caper vinaigrette with flaked parmesan placed on top and a rich aioli on the side for our appetizer. The mushroom fritters were crispy yet soft and had a light earthy taste in the middle. The arugula salad was tossed in a touch of oil sprinkled with capers that sliced the subtle earthiness of the mushrooms nicely with the silky garlicky aioli. We ordered our main courses with a Riesling Leitz wine that turned out to be the paramount decision of the night with its sweet notes of grapefruit and peach. The Riesling complemented my Dungeness crab ricotta ravioli with Meyer lemon pasta (along with peas and carrots) well. However, the Meyer lemon in the pasta was nearly unnoticeable and unfortunately finding a small crab shell embedded between tattered bits of crab inside the pasta made this dish more of a disappointment rather than the engaging bold crab dish that I had longed for. However, the richness of the ricotta harmonized with the peas and carrots, giving them a creamy, buttery tang.
My guest had the pot roast with Brussels sprouts, carrots and mashed potatoes, which had her taste buds fox-trotting in happiness with the pot roast falling apart with just a prick of the fork and the vegetables roasted in a succulent au jus. However, the horseradish sauce that tagged along was nothing to be desired with its assertive taste of sour cream. We finished off our meal with the mascarpone panna cotta cheesecake with strawberries for dessert (which was taken off our total tab because of the crab shell incident), which left our palates clean and our stomachs settled. The velvety smooth cheese coats the mouth while the strawberries score the cheese with a bitter sweetness to make a wonderful arrangement for an ending of a meal.
Overall, Rivoli is a fine restaurant perhaps for an anniversary, birthday or for a Tuesday night retirement celebration. As for the everyday occasion, there are superior establishments right around the corner. And that is not to say that I do not enjoy a fine dining experience as much as the next person. Yet, with a running tab of seventy-five dollars per person for average serving portions and decent ingredients, I am left feeling underwhelmed. On the other hand, the wine list, which carries onto five pages, does help make up for the ordinary food. Rivoli is also in a prime location in Albany, which adds to its charm of being in a lovely neighborhood that you can stroll through and window shop after your meal, but still the wine and location alone is not enough to have me arrange a visit back. Perhaps, if they had the garden open for dining instead of just being a display, or if the food was more tremendous with flavor, I would then be more enthusiastic to visit back.
Occupation: City Bike, Editor-in-Chief
Favorite Restaurant: Station House Café
Reviewed Rivoli Restaurant: Wednesday, March 7, 2012
I like small businesses that clearly care about their customers. The rest can go to hell. Seriously—they can go straight to hell. How many restaurants have you dined in where the staff and management obviously don’t care if you live or die (or enjoy your meal)? And yet they stay in business—interesting how you can build a business model on one-time-only customers.
So it’s refreshing to visit Rivoli, a clean, sharply run little place on the uber-cute strip of Solano Avenue in Berkeley. It’s been open for almost two decades, but you wouldn’t guess by looking at it—everything is clean, tidy and looks freshly painted. The small main dining room looks out on a neat garden through huge picture windows, and the host marches precisely around the room, carrying wine, answering questions and making sure everything is just right.
Our server was crisp and knowledgeable, yet friendly and unobtrusive. The complete look of the wine list should make vino-philes happy, but I don’t know much about orderin’ no wines, so I asked her for a wine recommendation. Her pick, a California Grenache, was a nice pairing with the hearty pot roast. Dishes came out with perfect timing, and we felt neither rushed nor smitten with awkward pauses, which is saying something when you’re out stag with a married couple facing you across the table waiting for you to say something entertaining.
The kitchen displayed similar competence. The appetizers were good, and although I wish my dining companions had a little more adventurous spirit (Really Al? A Caesar ($9.50)? And mixed greens, Zina? Really? ($7.50)).The quality and local pedigree of the produce, cheeses and other ingredients shone though in the simple dishes. On the fancy side, the house-smoked salmon was tender and full of flavor, paired with a light, fluffy spring onion soufflé ($15) that would impress anybody who’s tried to make a soufflé. But the Portobello mushroom fritters ($10) are Rivoli’s claim to fame, and deservedly so—chewy, rich and crunchy with light, greaseless seasoned breadcrumbs. Fried food!
Our entrees were good, but surprisingly, only the vegetarian dish really stood out. The pot roast ($24), with creamy mashed potatoes, Madeira jus and delicate roasted Brussels sprouts was good, although I thought the meat was a shade dry—I should have gotten the pork tenderloin. Al’s chicken prepared two ways ($23) was better; perfectly fried breast (although I thought the breast was dry) spooning with smoky grilled marinated breast, accompanied by olive-oil fired potatoes and perfect cooked spinach. But Zina the vegetarian gets the Best Dish Ordered award: melt-in-your-mouth grilled artichoke ($17) with tender, fat spears of asparagus and an unusually soft and fluffy Parmesan polenta that had us arguing about if it was too weird to be good or too good to be weird. Dessert was a moist and sweet pineapple upside-down cake ($8) that oddly reminded me of tarte tatin, thanks to the gooey, crackly caramelization on top (bottom?).
Hopefully, my writing has given you an idea of what to expect at Rivoli: excellent ingredients, careful, competent preparation and service, and solid value. It’s not cheap, but it’s far from overpriced, further highlighting the respect Rivoli shows its diners. If you want excellent service, well-executed dishes and outstanding ingredients, this is a great special-occasion or regular stop depending on how well you’ve weathered the last 5 years.