Sunday, January 06, 2008

New Year's Eve at Rivoli - Berkeley, Ca

I don’t have many particularly fond memories of New Year’s Eve. Last year I worked a delightfully expensive New Year’s prix fixe serving way too much to a crowd made up mostly of friends of the owner, ending the evening in a fight with a lovely but way-too-sensitive co-worker. The year before I went bowling in Anaheim, one of my very limited options while trapped near Disneyland on a work-related trip (don’t ask), a heavy storm brewing in the distance. And the year before that…. I was also in Anaheim on a work-related trip while my relationship with my then-girlfriend soured and dissolved like biodegradable plastic, exposing coffee grounds and eggshells to an uncaring world.

My last memorable New Year’s Eve? New Year’s Eve 2000 when I leapt into a 38-degree swimming pool at midnight. That was rad.

Anybody else remember how they put a big light-up “2000” in front of the Washington Monument, adding a pair of giant zero balls to what is already America’s national erection?

Just me?

So it’s fitting that my first memorable New Year’s in eight years involved the very same gentleman who took that midnight plunge with me back in ought ought. All the others chickened out and, admittedly, I would’ve too had he not stripped off his shirt, bolted past me and leapt into the chilly, leaf-strewn water. My balls were too big to be one-upped so I quickly followed. My balls were not too big, however, to not be immediately retracted deep inside my abdomen, my body reacting in protective fear to this inexplicable trauma.

Friend Randy has recently moved to Albany where he and his lovely wife Jessica bivouac in a stunning (if tiny) pre-war bungalow two short blocks from Solano Avenue. Hard work, technical acumen, and shrewd planning, have enabled them both to earn salaries well above most other 25 year-olds and has also allowed them to live the American dream: to be saddled with a (fully-prime) mortgage close to double America’s per-capita GDP.

So it was my turn, with my oh-so-careless and spendfree ways, to prod Randy into taking that New Year’s plunge, this one involving an 11PM dinner reservation (no small feat for a couple routinely waking at five most days) and a three-figure restaurant bill instead of a swimming pool and single-digit (centigrade) temperatures.

(In truth, it wasn’t all that difficult. Randy and Jessica were down pretty much from the get-go. But this is more interesting. I’m working on a metaphor here, so give a guy a break.)

Randy, Jessica, girlfriend Charlie, and myself set out from their cottage for a brisk evening walk to Rivoli, already warmed by a bottle of Roederer Estate Brut Rose (can you name a better domestic sparkling rose?) and a bottle of 2006 Chalone Pinot Noir (another favorite, though admittedly not the best vintage).

So why Rivoli? Why after my relatively ho-hum experience the first time? Simply put it was the last reservation I could get that wasn’t at a restaurant doing an elaborate and over-priced prix-fixe and did I mention we could walk there? Take that DUI checkpoints! Joke’s on you bitches!

As an aside, every fucking restaurant was doing a fucking “special celebration menu,” which as far as I can tell means charging more for the same food and coursing it out awkwardly with a free half-glass of bad champagne at midnight. Why can’t restaurants just be open like normal?

Fortunately Rivoli was doing their regular menu, albeit with tables adorned with confetti and noisemakers and co-owner/wine director Roscoe adorned with a comically tiny festive hat. Think Damon Wayans in the “Men On…” bits from In Living Color.

First we were all sent an amuse of puree of baby artichoke soup with shaved parmesan. This proved for me the highlight of the evening, warm and rich with a deep fresh artichoke-ness.

For a first course I had the butternut squash gnocchi with mixed mushrooms and hazelnut gremolata. The gnocchi were denser than the best I’ve had, but far from gummy and still quite tasty. All the components were suspended in a delicious brown butter cream sauce and we all know that brown butter and hazelnuts are the platonic lesbians of deliciousness. Charlie had a simple unremarkable mixed green salad, but the accompanying goat cheese crostini with fig marmalata was tasty. Randy and Jessica split the butter-poached lobster on a mascarpone biscuit with peas, carrots, leeks, lobster butter, and chervil. Judging from their rapt expressions it was pretty freakin’ great.

My entrée was a grilled Hoffman farms quail stuffed with prosciutto, sage, and Brussels sprouts with a sweet potato gratin and pomegranate pan jus. And more brown butter. Though the quail/bacon/Brussels sprouts combo is pretty tired (but justifiably tasty), the flavors were strong and well-developed. Much of my quail (the narrow, bony bits) were rather overcooked, but the breast was moist and flavorful.

We brought with us a couple wines, a Dieboldt blanc de blancs that was crisp, elegant, lean and apple-y, with an impossible ethereal dryness and a 2003 grand cru Corton Blanc from Chandon de Briailles that was medium bodied, dry and flinty, with a light toasted butteriness and a lingering finish. Pretty damn good, well balanced, and held up well across the palate without being overpowering. Roscoe directed us to a third wine, a 2004 Schiava from Northern Italy that was much more rich, earthy, and Burgundian in style than the lighter, fruitier, bubble gumm-y Beaujolais nouveau taste I’ve come to associate with the varietal.

Midnight was fun. Rivoli definitely has it down to a science, except for handing out the noisemakers and poppers after midnight hit. Ah well.

When dessert rolled around we were full, drunk, and happy so we grabbed two desserts to go and wended our way slowly home.

And what did I learn children? Something I’ve been getting a sense of for a while now…. You can get good food anywhere. Good food is easy. You can do it at home, on the road, at the ballpark, in an Armenian circus tent. What really makes a good meal is the who, the where, and the when and whether or not tiny hats are involved.

I give New Year’s at Rivoli three snaps in a z formation.

1539 Solano Ave.
Berkeley, Ca 94707

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