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Livin' La Dolce Vita 

Wednesday, Oct 27 1999
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The curmudgeon celebrated his birthday last week with a dozen of his closest friends, and I was the designated restaurant-picker. "Well," I said, "I know a lot of restaurants that annoy the guy."

The parameters I had to work within were even narrower than that; the restaurant had to be a place that not only didn't get on the guest of honor's nerves, it had to serve Italian food as well. "Do you mean Italian Italian, or a Mediterranean place?" I asked, knowing the sort of trend-slaves I was dealing with. "And if you mean Mediterranean, do you mean the entire Mediterranean basin -- Beirut and Algiers and all that jazz -- or just Spain and Provençe and Italy and maybe Greece?"

It's hard being a restaurant-picker in this hyphenated day and age, when the laudable notion of voluntary multiculturalism has added a hint of wasabi to the most mundane platter of buttermilk mashed potatoes, and finely calibrated culinary semantics are necessary on all sides. (As it turned out, we ended up at an Italian Italian place, probably to stop me from asking any more questions.) I like mashed potatoes, and I like a hint of wasabi here and there, not to mention pesto, so I'm all for blurred boundaries and the (occasionally wacky) flavor combinations that follow, inevitably, in their wake.

The Mediterranean is a good example of a global region rich in cross-referential culinary potential. The area's delectable and abundant raw materials -- garlic, fennel, olives, basil, grapes, tomatoes, seafood -- form the foundation for several dozen time-honored cuisines whose shared ingredients make them ideal for victual intermarriage. And when you graft these flavors onto our own (after all) Mediterranean climate, as homesick friars did a couple of centuries ago, you're bringing an entirely new set of global traditions into the mix.

Southern Europe California-style has never tasted better than at Rivoli, a stylish and attractive venue just this side of the Albany border. It's located in a particularly fertile neighborhood, foodwise -- the whole block smells good -- and strolling past Renee's and Zachary's and Ajanta only intensifies your appetite. As soon as you enter Rivoli you're struck by the restaurant's well-run, professional élan; everything about the place seems designed to ensure the graceful, unruffled presentation of good food. A tiny seven-seat copper-topped wine bar, located just inside the foyer, invites sipping and lounging, and the nearby kitchen burbles with creativity and aromatics.

Inside the warmly hued dining room the waitstaff is smooth and unobtrusive. Water glasses and breadbaskets (holding the lusty sort of sourdough you can never get enough of, served with sweet butter and sea salt) are replenished before you notice a lack. Although the place is habitually packed, same-table conversation is possible, even pleasant. The decor is pleasantly spare and pasteled, de rigueur in this day and age and genre, and floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows look out on a masterpiece of a back garden brimming with flora and fauna of every variety. This is a very cool setting for some very good food.

Example: Crisp, earthy mushroom fritters ($7) packed with portobello meat, draped over caper vinaigrette-dressed arugula, scattered with shards of pungent Parmesan and served alongside a garlicky lemon aioli ideal for dipping. Mushrooms also star in another appetizer, a rich, creamy soup ($6.25) lightened with chives and buttered croutons and so redolent of mossy essence you can't help but reflect upon autumnal strolls and woodsmoke. The Niçoise ($8.25) is a classic Mediterranean dish here trans-Atlantified with the substitution of roasted Gulf shrimp for the traditional tuna; the salty-sweet prawns and the traditional haricot verts, tomatoes, and briny olives work well in a creamy context of chopped egg and garlicky aioli. Best of all, though, is an appetizer of beautifully smoked duck breast ($8). The tender meat, reminiscent in flavor of a superior roast bacon, interacts wonderfully with silky braised leeks, sweet little Zante currants and a soft potato blini soaking up a subtle balsamic jus.

The soul of the Mediterranean is captured whole in the establishment's top entree, boudin ($16.50). Rivoli's version of the classic French sausage is stuffed with sweet scallops and lobster meat, grilled until crisp on the outside and molten on the inside, and presented on a platter brimming with tangy fennel-carrot-pepper slaw, a cushion of lemon-scented Italian parsley, and wonderfully rich mashed potatoes. The McCormack Ranch lamb shank ($16) is another triumph, braised to the meltingly tender point and accompanied by grilled figs and peppers and creamy polenta spiked with Parmesan.

The chicken cooked two ways ($15) goes the grilled/boneless and bone-in/roasted route, with blanched vegetables and a dreamy Parmesan bread pudding providing most of the fireworks. No fireworks are necessary with the ravioli ($14), however: The silky casing, more crepe than pasta, barely contains a creamy confluence of mozzarella di bufala and Bellwether Farms ricotta; sweet late-summer tomatoes in two forms (sauce and vinaigrette) dress the finished product along with a puree of fresh basil and, adding a nicely crunchy note, buttery toasted breadcrumbs.

The best dessert on the menu is a sweet-tart pudding of fresh summer berries ($6) with a dollop of whipped crême fraîche providing a nice bland cushion for the black-blue juice. Then again, there was absolutely nothing wrong with the dense, devilishly good chocolate brownie cake ($6) presented warm, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream melting hither and yon as crême Anglaise provided still further cholestoric opportunities.

Like all of Rivoli's platters, the cheese assortment ($6) is a minimalist origami of shapes and textures, this one featuring three (non-pungent) examples of the cheesemaker's art: fromage d'Affinois, Toscano Pecorino, and a Cabécou drizzled with honey and olive oil, presented with toasted rounds of walnut-currant bread. The mango and honeydew sorbets ($6), bracingly fresh and accompanied by spears of rich, delicate pistachio shortbread, are the ideal meal-closer.

As might be expected, the wine list betrays an open-minded European sensibility far removed from that of the parochial, I-won't-drink-anything-but-Chardonnay crowd. Reflecting the venue's Mediterranean thrust, with a few German and California vintages scattered here and there, the cellar features a wide variety of whites, both dry and sweet, with mostly food-friendly zins and pinot noirs on the red side. Wine prices are reasonable; only three (Fiddlehead Cellars' pinot noir, Paul Hobbs' chardonnay, and Silver Oak's cab) cost over $50.

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Matthew Stafford

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