Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Living the life at Riviera

Elegant. Luxurious. Delicious. Those were the impressions I was left with after an evening spent at Riviera, Matthew Carmichael's newest restaurant.

Its location is the first thing you'll notice: the perennially-deserted-at-night Sparks Street (albeit at the busier Elgin end, near D'arcy McGee's pub). Inside, the old CIBC flagship building has been lovingly updated, with gorgeous sky-high ceiling and wall moldings intact. The cream, grey, and brown colour scheme feels like a cross between church and a fin-de-siècle train station, which is to say I loved it. Grainy wood tables, soft brown tufted leather banquettes, and oversized striped linen napkins felt both rustic and chic. The open kitchen and bar run along one full wall, with the rest devoted to tables and booths of varying size.

Our group of six women (eventually joined by my husband) had the fabulous large square booth at the back of the restaurant. I cleverly positioned myself facing the front so that I could look out over the rest of the space and all of the action. On a Tuesday night in December, the place was packed and hopping for the entire 2.5 hours we spent there. Due to the large sound-absorbing fabric panels on both walls, the noise levels were delightfully muted despite the soaring ceiling and many fellow diners.

A sign that this is a place where dinner is taken seriously: the large number of staff members on hand. Bartenders, food runners, and servers were all available whenever needed, but never in your face about it. Our server was friendly without being obsequious, well-informed about the menu and drinks list, and efficient. The wine list was pricey, but well-rounded, with some interesting and unexpected selections and a short list of half-bottles that my friend and I took advantage of. More of that, please, Ottawa. They're perfect for two people who aren't huge drinkers, especially if one of them is driving.

Four paragraphs in and I haven't even gotten to the food: that's how important the atmosphere is to this place. Just sitting at my table, with my coat whisked away and softly glowing copper lamps illuminating my menu, felt serene and welcoming. But trust me, the food is no slouch. A long list of gorgeous-sounding appetizers heads up the menu, followed by a shorter selection of pasta dishes and a well-curated quartet of mains. Also on offer were oysters, a fish special, and a daily pasta. It took all my willpower not to order six dishes, because I had heard great things about their desserts (spoiler: it was good intel).

In the end I went with two of those seductive apps to make up my meal: tuna tartare followed by scallop and spot prawn chowder. I've found this to be my preferred way to eat at higher-end restos lately because it lets me try more of the menu. Nearly everyone else at the table ordered an app and a pasta dish, with one lone holdout going with the short rib main.

The tartare arrived covered in thin, crisp sunchoke chips that looked for all the world like flower petals. Beneath, chunky cubes of soft, meaty albacore tuna were layered atop a fine dice of "ratatouille:" zucchini, eggplant, peppers and onion cooked gently until tender-crisp. The balance of textures was brilliant and the restrained flavours of the vegetables allowed the tuna to be the star of the dish. The portion was generous without being too much. I relished every morsel.

Fortunately, my next dish was equally showstopping. A wide shallow bowl arrived filled with small chunks of soft potato, tiny adorable bay scallops, perfectly cooked spot prawns (the prettiest shrimp in existence, if you ask me), a couple of unheralded-but-welcome mussels, tiny chewy morsels of good bacon, and bright crisp kernels of white corn, bathed in a rich, creamy, herby broth (but not too much of it). It was cohesive without blurring or numbing any of the individual elements, and I loved it.

I didn't try anyone else's dishes but they were all equally well-received, including the tomato and burrata salad for two, shared by my dining companions across the table and gazed upon jealously by yours truly. I also wished I had room for the unctuous, cognac-laced chicken liver pate. My neighbour loved her orechiette carbonara with chanterelles, and the short rib lover pronounced it a perfect example, tender and flavourful.

My husband, as mentioned, popped over from work in time for dessert, and felt himself lucky to have done so, given the options available. Described in loving detail by our server, the three offerings all sounded amazing to me, but when there's a lemon tart, I order the lemon tart. It arrived as advertised, in a stemmed coupe glass with its almond pâte sucrée crust crumbled into chunks at the bottom. Above it, a properly tart lemon curd, made frothy with whipped cream, was concealed beneath a silky-smooth, lightly bruléed cloud of lavender-scented meringue. Every bite was magic. I have eaten many a lemon tart, and this one reminded me why I love it so much. 

Nearly everyone else went with one of the two chocolate options: the first, an opulent tart with a crust made from peanut brittle, a ganache filling, chunks of sponge toffee, and a cloud of chantilly cream; the second, a dense flour-and-nut-free chocolate soufflé on a puddle of orange curd, topped with chile-spiked whipped cream. Chris had the peanut concoction; his response was essentially "je ne regrette rien." The soufflés also disappeared at speed, with murmurs of delight.

The man himself, Chef Carmichael, was on the line for much of the night, and I wanted to shake his hand but both of his were usually full. What he has achieved with Riviera is the kind of elegant dining that Steve Beckta pioneered in Ottawa: high-class without being stuffy, creative without being weird, and fun without being silly. Riviera is a celebration-level restaurant for us; you'll easily drop $150 a couple here with tip, more if you really sink your teeth in and do pre-dinner cocktails or a bottle of wine. That said, I've already decided it is where I plan to spend my next birthday in February. An evening this pleasant and delicious simply begs to be repeated. I can hardly wait.

1 comment:

Xine said...

Works of art! Definitely have to try this place next time I'm in Ottawa.