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Nov 21, 2008 07:39 PM

(Report) Riva in Santa Monica

This is a report on my first trip to Jason Travi's new restaurant Riva. I should preface this by saying that, although I do miss sitting at the cocktail bar watching original bar man Albert Trummer do his thing (why did he have to leave for New York?), I am a big fan of Travi's food at Fraiche.

Riva's menu tends toward the diverse waters of Italy—from the scenic Amalfi Coast to Sicily to the Adriatic Sea. They provide the inspiration for what Travi calls "an approachable, rustic cuisine."

The restaurant's interior is much more stark than Fraiche, filled with textured concrete walls, chocolate leather banquets and an oak planked floor. Chef Travi cooks in an open kitchen framed by rustic French limestone. I didn't learn this until later, but guests who dine at the chef’s counter have the opportunity to enjoy impromptu tasting menus.

Riva’s wine list has been assembled by Travi partner Thierry Perez, whose list at Fraîche was honored as one of the best in 2008 by Food & Wine magazine. Riva provides an exclusively Italian wine list with more than 200 selections, priced between $25 and $1,000. There is an emphasis on lesser known boutique wineries and approachable prices, with an extensive section dedicated to wines priced under $50. Unlike most extensive Italian lists, the wines are not organized by region but by tasting characteristics (e.g. full body, complex, light & elegant) - a nice choice for customers less familiar with Italian wine.

About 30 wines are offered by the glass and able mixologists man the bar, creating cocktails incorporating the top shelf spirits and fresh fruits from the Santa Monica Farmer's Market a few blocks away. The night we were there, we tried a delicious apricot sour (apricot liqueur, lemon and egg white) and a prosecco cocktail with Campari and lemon.

The chef, who was in the kitchen that night, presents a creative crudo menu. It includes geoduck clams with orange, watercress, mint and basil seeds; cuttlefish with walnuts and micro celery; and sea bass with pink peppercorns and lemon oil. We ordered the blue shrimp. While the shrimp were delicious (incredibly sweet and fresh), it seemed really overpriced. The serving only had two shrimp, about U 20 in size, for $13. That's $130 a pound, more than real Japanese Kobe beef. I think this is bound to disappoint most diners.

There are a number of hot appetizers on the menu, including a roasted quail with farro and squash, burrata with pepperonata and a creamy chestnut soup. We skipped over those to try a pizza from the kitchen’s wood-burning oven. It was a simple pie with a rich, herbal tomato sauce, pine nuts, thin bacon-sized slices of smoked pancetta and Parmigiano-Reggiano. With prices equal to that of Mozza here in LA and A16 up in San Francisco, I expected a little more. Nevertheless, with Travi at the helm, I am willing to give it time. I am sure he is still searching out the sweet spots in the oven.

One entree we tried was the "Crispy Ocean Trout" with celery root puree, braised artichokes and lemon conserva brown butter. This was a great dish with a $25 ticket price. The fish was perfectly cooked - very moist with a cracklin' crispy skin. The braised artichokes, rich and buttery, were a nice complement to the fish.

Our other entree was the Kurobuta pork chop with creamed arugula, cavolo nero and pork jus. Like the fish, the hearty pork chop was prepared perfectly. It was well seasoned, very juicy and served medium with a warm pink center. The creamed arugula is a wonderful original creation, something I haven't seen in any other restaurant. And the bitterness of the cavolo nero cuts nicely through the creaminess of the sauce. This was a nice dish for $29; something I would definitely order again.

The restaurant is just a few weeks old. Our waitress told us that Travi has been in the kitchen most nights, making sure the opening is smooth. The food coming out of the kitchen is well prepared with bright, fresh flavors. Some dishes seem a little over priced, especially considering the state of the economy. I hope, however, that Travi is able to find a happy medium because he certainly knows how to cook.

For photos of the food, see link:

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  1. It is not (yet) as good as Fraiche but is a great addition to the Neighborhood. I agree with you on the prices, though--they seem a notch higher than those at Fraiche but that might be due to higher rent in S.M. By the way, the quail is quite delicious.

      1. I've been there a couple times now, and both times walked away thinking it was good, not great, but too expensive. The prices are way too high, servings very small, and nothing stands out. It is a beautiful room though...

        1. It doesn't sound like a unique addition in any way, unfortunately, even for Santa Monica. I wonder when chefs are going to learn. More overpriced Meditteranean food that could probably be made better at home? I hope he improves on his pizza, like Silverton really has.

          2 Replies
          1. re: epop

            I was disappointed too. Apart from the lovely bartender nothing worth mentioning from my first visit. Hopefully they will improve the food.

            1. re: epop

              Totally agree. A mid-priced restaurant like Nook in Santa Monica -- now that would be a unique (and very, very welcome) addition to the neighborhood.