Friday, January 21, 2005

REVIEW: Dinner at Rivoli

Wednesday night four of us celebrated Alan Bostick’s birthday with dinner at Rivoli in Berkeley. According to its web page, “Rivoli strives to be a hands on, moderately priced restaurant with simple and creative food, carefully selected wines and comfortable service in a warm and lively atmosphere.”

They succeed. I left the restaurant feeling the blissful glow that arises from being well fed, well cared for, and well loved.

Dining out when you have serious food allergies can be an exercise in frustration and occasionally a danger to life. Over the years, I’ve seen all the things that can go wrong: waiters indifferent to my concerns, cooks ignorant of their ingredients, the omnipresent possibility of a serious food reaction. Even if I don’t end up in the ER, a reaction spoils the evening for everybody else and spoils the week for me. (It takes that long to recuperate.) Giving the allergy speech is always a time-consuming and generally miserable experience, and I’ve learned to hate it. It’s humiliating to explain these issues, and it’s bloody frustrating not to be able to eat what others can.

A good waitstaff and a knowledgeable chef can make all the difference. Rivoli has both. We all ate different things, and it was all perfectly cooked, elegantly presented, and reasonably priced. And none of it sent me to the hospital.

I started with portabella fritters with a dipping sauce of subtle lemon aioli. The crisp slices of mushroom were fanned out on a bed of arugula and topped with caper vinaigrette—an astonishing riff on the old fried mushroom standby. Every bite was a rainbow of flavors and textures: crunchy, earthy, bright, creamy.

For a main course, I chose grilled scallops. Because of my allergies, I can almost never order seafood in restaurants, and I was eager to taste these, but half afraid something would go wrong: too much heat turns scallops into 50-caliber rubber bullets suitable for subduing crazed rioters, and an extra day or so between sea and plate can give them an unpleasant doctor’s office flavor of iodine and disappointment.

The first taste brought tears to my eyes. These beauties were of a melting tenderness and velvety fresh flavor. They were bedded on a mound of soothingly creamy mashed potatoes and surrounded by grilled Brussels sprouts, the apotheosis of that maligned and maltreated vegetable. The roasted tomatoes were small, sweet, perfectly flavorful.

For dessert I ordered Meyer lemon curd tart, tart and fresh, sparked with blood oranges and a touch of bergamot in the sauce. Not too sweet, not too tart—balanced on the point of maximum flavor.

Not only did I have a meal that was transcendently delicious, I had superb service to go with it. Alan's partner Debbie had made inquiries beforehand to make sure there would be something I could eat, but we also checked with the waiter. He was a model of everything a good waiter should be: friendly, unobtrusive, aware, skilled, and concerned. He made substitutions with no problem, and never interrupted the conversation. He even picked up that it was Alan’s birthday and added a small candle to his dessert. Nothing flashy or humiliating—just a little notice taken.

The ambiance matched the quality of the food and service. Although every table was at capacity, the room felt welcoming and peaceful, not noisy or claustrophobic. The acoustic engineering may have had something to do with the miraculous quiet, and the quality of the food certainly did—people were too busy savoring the food and the blissful serenity it engendered to get noisy. I didn’t even hear a cell phone ring all evening. Nor were we tormented with Muzak.

Part of the reason for the serene atmosphere, though, was surely the vast glass wall at the rear of the restaurant, which showcased a beautiful shade garden: ferns, cyclamen, bleeding hearts, a grand magnolia tree coming into bloom. Lit like a stage, the garden drew the eye away from the proximity of one’s neighbors and toward the open space. I’ve noticed the same effect in traffic jams on certain freeways: being stuck on 85, 280, or 680 never feels as edgy, frustrating, and claustrophobic as being stuck on the ugly, billboard-dotted freeways such as the 101 or 880.

We were seated at the back corner of the restaurant, next to the wall. Under a stone bench were a couple of bowls of dry cat food and two cats enjoying their dinner. The waiter explained that we were likely to see some wildlife, too: raccoons and even skunks. As the evening went on, half a dozen raccoon families showed up for dinner. Their manners were hilarious, too: one or two would appear, then the kids would climb right over the parents to get at the food.

Inside Rivoli, the behavior of the diners was more controlled but no less eager. The food was a revelation. My reactions to each new dish contributed at least as much as the raccoons did to the entertainment of my companions.

Finally we staggered forth, utterly sated. My one unfulfilled wish is that Alan could have a birthday three or four times a year. Or as often as the menus change.

Rivoli: 1539 Solano Ave. Berkeley, CA
(510) 526-2542