There is something to be said for the successful neighbourhood restaurant, the one that stays in business forever by delivering consistent food at affordable prices, enticing the local clientele to go back over and over instead of cooking at home. It’s hard to pull it off because many of these establishments tend to become first complacent, then mediocre. The formula seems to work better in Europe, where the food is kept simple with a few changes here and there, a high level of consistency and, often, signature dishes that spark the craving.
In Los Angeles, successful neighbourhood restaurants are few and far between. Riviera in Calabasas could have the potential to become one; instead, it falls prey to pretentiousness. Then again, maybe it’s just me. After three visits, prodded by a friend who lives nearby and frequents it often, my conclusion is always the same: friendly service but pretentious food that doesn’t hit the mark served in a pretentious space.
The restaurant is located in a drab (as drab as squeaky clean Calabasas can be) mini-mall which explains the heavy draperies covering the windows, to better create an atmosphere of intimacy. Even the front door is not see-through. The bar area, with a tv and low couches, where they offer Happy Hour between 5 and 8, is starting to look dated. The two main dining rooms, with the striped chairs and matching china and the small statues around the walls, aim to offer an air of opulence. The cuisine is described as Northern Italian and the chef heads from Lake Como but by trying to elevate the dishes to some standard of modernism, they end up being funny hybrids.
Upon being seated – and noticing the chipped bread plate – my friend and I were served a couple of soggy bruschettas with flavorless tomatoes and some nice bread with a sort of pesto that was so garlicky any self-respecting vampire would have run for cover.
The entrees are all between $24 to $40 which I don’t object to paying for first-rate ingredients. The organic salmon in potato crust and lobster sauce intrigued me and that is what I ordered. When it arrived, it ended up being two nicely moist pieces of salmon encased in a potato hash that was most likely flash fried. The fish inside was good but I found myself pushing the crust aside, too heavy with oil – the accompanying baby vegetables were simply steamed; now, who still serves steamed vegetables apart from the Marriot hotels and hospitals? The lobster sauce was not terribly flavorful and the whole thing managed to wake me up at 3 am, trying to find its way down my digestive tract.
My friend’s filet mignon with a black pepper sauce was tender but otherwise uninspired and served with the same sad vegetables. We passed on desserts.
Despite my griping, on a Monday night the restaurant was pleasantly full. I still think that contemporary Italian food, prepared with less fuss and ambition would go a long way into luring patrons like me back.