Saturday, July 08, 2006

Rivoli - Berkeley, Ca

'Cause it's my birthday. And I'd never eaten here before.

Me, girlfriend Charlie, and my parents.

The Space:
Homey (if a bit tacky) facade on Solano Ave entering into a wine bar area. We continued down a service corridor ("Guests in the hallway!" is a common refrain from the manager) into the dining room. The dining room was a crowded but well-spaced single room overlooking an aesthetically overgrown garden through floor-to-ceiling plate windows. Tables were nice and well-appointed. Chairs attractive but a bit uncomfortable.

The Wine:
Perhaps the most perfect wine list I've encountered. Great selection of full and half-bottles from a diverse global distribution. The small list is beautifully priced with many bottles for under $35 and almost the entire list is under $50 with a handful of exceptions. Wines that I've seen on other wine lists (Navarro Gewurztraminer, for instance) were consistenly $5-$8 cheaper on Rivoli's list. Wine service was great with funky chilled marble bottle holders to keep the wine at a nice temperature. Service temperature for the both our white wines was a nice 45-50 degrees. A 2004 gruner veltliner from Hiedler ($26) paired well with our appetizers. It was brisk, minerally, tart and acidic. A Herze Avo Chablis ($32) from 2004 worked well with our seafood and chicken heavy entrees. It had a nice full-body complexity with a touch of oak and a lingering mineral finish.

Four appetizers: a baby lolla rossa salad with beets, avocado, and green goddess; lobster sausage on braised savoy cabbage; portabello mushroom fritters, and bellwether ricotta and pecorino gnocchi with grilled figs. All were good, nothing was astonishing. The salad was a server error (we had ordered the OTHER baby lettuce salad) but was nice anyway--succulent lettuce, delicious avocado, and a great green goddess dressing. The beets were cut too damn small to eat. The lobster sausage was pretty good, though it was spongy and fishy making it taste like the $2 fish cake you get at Japanese markets (and which I love--but not for $12). The braised cabbage was quite good. The mushroom fritters, a Rivoli signature I'm told, were great. The portabellos stay plump and firm while still being cooked through. The breading is crunchy and the aioli is well-balanced. The gnocchi was the most disappointing of the quartet--more gnudi than gnocchi. They were underflavored and undersalted balls of cheese and air paired with some relatively unremarkable figs.

I had grilled halibut with fregola, saffron, grilled calamari, and a cucumber and mint sauce. The flavors were quite good but the halibut was overcooked. Not just a bit, but pretty substantially--almost to the point of squeaky dryness. My dad had grilled day boat scallops--the smallest day boats I've seen. The scallops were great and cooked perfectly and the accomanying potato and corn mix tasted good too, but the presentation was unappetizing--six of the scallops sort of mushed into a monochrome vegetable mush. Mom had a chicken roulade with prosciutto, hazelnuts, scamorza cheese, spinach and bing cherries. This was probably the most complicated and most interesting dish--strong and contrasting flavors with everything cooked nicely. Charlie went with the Bufalo mozarella ravioli with an artichoke and onion mix on top. This was odd because the ravioli themselves were just lumps of mozarella encased in a flavorless (salt?) pasta pocket. Pretty bad. Eating a bite of that with all the sauteed flavors that they're topped with was pretty good. Why some of that topping wasn't made into a filling and why the pasta was gummy and flavorless remains a mystery.

This was where Rivoli shone. We had the hot fudge sundae--delicious actually warm hot fudge in a parfait glass with great vanilla ice cream (not homemade, I'm told) and perfectly toasted nuts. We also had the hazelnut chocolate cake with a flavored ice cream that I can't remember. This was a truly bittersweet chocolate cake and was quite tasty, albeit a bit dry. The cake itself was so bitter that a bite wihtout the ice cream was almost too much to stand--but I liked it. We also enjoyed the strawberry shortcake. The strawberries and cream were good if nothing remarkable, but the shortcake was buttery and a little smoky--a perfect savory counterpoint to the strawberries and cream. Pairing up with our desserts we had a glass of a delicious full-flavored Tokaji and a late-bottle Riesling from Yuba County that was also nice and bright although just a touch too syrupy for my tastes. Basically, desserts were fucking great.

In Conclusion:
Rivoli was exactly what I expected--great ingredients well-prepared, though I was surprised at the number of kitchen slip-ups at a three-star perennial Top 100 restaurant. I don't feel compelled to go back for dinner, but I could easily see myself returning for dessert and a bottle of wine at the wine bar.

If you want boring, well-prepared food at a pretty good price, go to Rivoli. Of the Berkeley Cal-Med powerhouses I've been too, I'd still rank the food below Chez Panisse Cafe and Lalime's. I definitely appreciate what they're doing with their menu pricing and wine selection. I hold no ill will, I just found Rivoli dull and predictable.

Cuisine: Cal-Med
Price range: Appetizers: $7.50-$12.25; Entrees: $16.95-$23.50
HFF's cost for four (four appetizers, four entrees, three desserts, two bottles of wine, two glasses of dessert wine, one coffee, tax, tip): I don't know--it was my birthday.
Reservations: 510-526-2542
1539 Solano Ave
Berkeley, Ca 94707

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