View more photos in Anne Fishbein's Riva slideshow.
The Santa Monica Promenade, exhibit A in any serious study of local urban renewal, is a pretty good place to find an art book, a handmade toy or a pair of jeans that doesn’t quite shriek of its origins in a mall. The movie theaters are clean and comfortable; the street performers friendly and polished. If you have been here long enough to remember when the three-block strip consisted basically of NaNa, empty storefronts and a handful of dying fabric stores, you are probably happy for the opportunity to walk in the shadow of a dozen water-spouting dinosaurs, to shop for tasteful furniture and New Age CDs for hours and never wander more than a few feet from a cappuccino or the eternal really cute sweater.
But although the Promenade is literally bisected by perhaps the best farmers market in the western United States, until recently it was without a single reliable place to eat, at least if you aspired to something grander than a smoothie, a taco plate or a quick bite of pasta. Last year, Alain Giraud opened the bistro Anisette a few steps west of the market, and immediately drew crowds of people anxious to taste the kind of produce they tended to spend their Wednesday mornings browsing through. And now at the top end of the Promenade there is Riva, shining amid a row of chain restaurants like a ruby among paste imitations, a purveyor of Kurobuta pork chops, aged Barbaresco and tricolor cauliflower sautéed with anchovies anchoring a block dominated by CPK, Starbucks and Houston’s.
Riva is a big, good-looking room in the tradition of the Los Angeles restaurant, with a long bar at one side where the bartenders hope to tempt cocktalians with Riviera-inspired Aperol cucumber fizzes and concoctions of grappa and apricot instead of the inevitable Grey Goose and soda. At the station up front, co-owner Thierry Perez tries hard to avoid eye contact with edgily hungry patrons who have dropped in without reservations. The open kitchen is dominated by a wood oven and by the mournful countenance of chef Jason Travi, who scowls at neglectful sous chefs the way that Kobe Bryant does at a reserve point guard out of step with a defensive rotation. And Riva is open every night until midnight, which is no small thing in this early-closing corner of town.
At their Culver City restaurant Fraîche, Perez and Travi reinvented the wine bar as a casual-destination restaurant, a busy, open dining room where the bottles came from Southern France and the food hewed closer to decent bistro fare than to snack-and-nibble small plates. Riva translates Fraîche’s grape-friendly, farmers market–powered cooking into Italian — wood-fired pizzas, of course, but also roasted quail and blood orange salads, house-made head cheese and an aquarium’s worth of crudo, a catalog of raw-fish preparations that are actually more popular here than they are at the moment in Italy.
Ninety percent of the customers at Riva seem to end up with pizza at one point in the meal, and even in a city saturated with new pizza concepts, Travi’s pies have their niche — crusts thin and pliable as shirt cardboard, bottoms annealed shiny and black by the heat of the brick oven, and sparingly topped with things like tomato and buffalo mozzarella, underflavored meatballs, shrimp “scampi,” or potatoes and Fontina cheese, a concoction that turns out to resemble a custardy French gratin plopped down on a crust. I liked the equally custardy pizza made with spinach and Gorgonzola cheese. But it’s good pizza, not great — at least in a city that also boasts the wood-oven pizzas at Pizzeria Mozza, Gjelina and Terroni — and is oddly at its best as untopped pizza bread.
Crudo is clearly where Travi’s interests lie here, with the marriage of Italian flavors and first-quality raw fish — thinly sliced sea bass dotted with bits of Meyer lemon pulp and tiny cubes of toasted bread, like a cross between sashimi and a classic sauce Grenobloise; cured salmon trout flavored with dill; or a beautiful dish of diced raw cuttlefish tossed with chopped walnuts, celery leaves and green olive oil. The scallops with orange powder were a bit clumsy, a riff perhaps on the influential crudo of diver scallop with tangerine oil at Esca in New York City, though lacking the essential sharpness of that dish. But Travi’s tonno di tonnato is inspired — an improvisation on the idea of the essential summer dish vitello tonnato, cold veal sauced with an emulsion of mayonnaise, capers and good canned tuna, but substituting luxuriously soft slivers of raw tuna for the veal so that it becomes tuna in tuna sauce, a dish of Ducassian complexity.
If you’ve been to Fraîche, you’ll probably recognize a lot of Travi’s main courses, which tend to be pretty close to those of the Culver City restaurant. The monkfish Francaise is carefully heated to the point where the flesh is cooked but not bouncy, glazed with a buttery white wine sauce, served on a bed of sautéed spinach: a satisfying bistro dish. There is lamb spezzatino, a tomato-based stew from the northern lake district of Italy, spooned over what seemed to be a delicious version of aligot, an Auvergnat preparation of cheesy pureed potatoes, beaten with smoked mozzarella instead of the traditional curds of Cantal cheese. (If there is an Italian variant of aligot, forgive me.) At lunchtime, the simple chicken Milanese, pounded, breaded and fried is just right with a tart arugula salad. And there is an improbably good shellfish fra diavola here, mussels and squid and half a lobster briefly simmered in a spicy tomato sauce, exactly what you always want but never end up with when you order a pasta fra diavola, which in other places usually ends up as a watery, overcooked mess.
This is probably the place to mention that Thierry’s all-Italian wine list is very well-curated, peppered with both favorites and obscurities (especially from the Alto Adige), and arranged into sections not just by the characteristics of the wines but by price — it’s nice being able to browse through a selection $50-and-under bottles without having to confront the Brunelli and Super Tuscans you won’t be able to afford. I could drink the Langhe from Produttori dei Barbaresco all day, a wine with all the odd truffly pleasure of Nebbiolo but without the bitter tannins of Barolo and minus the screamingly high sticker price. It may take a wine that good to divert you from the considerable pleasures of the Aperol cucumber fizz.
Riva: Open daily, 11:30 a.m.-mid. Valet parking. AMEX, Discover, MC, V. Full bar. Appetizers $9-$16; pizzas $11-$17; dinner entrées $25-$37. Recommended dishes: crudo, Gorgonzola pizza, chicken Milanese, shellfish fra diavolo. 312 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 451-7482 or www.rivarestaurantla.com.