Fraiche in Culver City is one of my favorite restaurants in Los Angeles, and it even won praise as Los Angeles Magazine’s Best New Restaurant Pick for 2007. Chef Jason Travi and his wife Miho really established themselves at this wonderful restaurant that still brings in the crowds. I’ve been a huge fan of Travi’s food from the time when he spearheaded La Terza restaurant on 3rd Street (which is now gone. Gino Angelini, Travi’s mentor at La Terza, just reopened the space this past weekend as Minestraio Trattoria). I was really excited to try Riva, Travi’s new digs in Santa Monica. I went in with an open mind, despite mixed reviews on Yelp and Chowhound.
Riva means ‘shoreline’ in Italian; it features more seafood, and is only a few blocks away from the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica. The interior features high ceilings, large mirrors on the walls, an open kitchen, and a large bar- simple and elegant like most other nice restaurants in LA or NY.
As soon as we were seated , the first thing we all noticed was the deafening noise level. Hands down, this was the noisiest restaurant that I’ve ever been too. I felt like we were at a bar or a lounge. Halfway through the meal, I got so tired of leaning in, shouting, and saying “What?” all the time, that I just zoned out of the table conversation.
The menu has 4 categories: Crudo, Appetizers, Pizza, and Entrees. Crudo means ‘raw’ in Italian and Spanish, and it generally refers to raw slices of seafood dressed in olive oil, sea salt, and some type of acid (vinegar or citrus juice). Depending on how it’s arranged or dressed, it’s fancy sashimi, ceviche, tartare, or carpaccio. This concept of Italian sashimi became popular when Mario Batali succeeded in doing it well at his NY eatery Esca many years ago. Riva makes them with fluke, geoduck clam, cuttlefish, sea bass, tuna, and other sea creatures. We ordered the scallops that came in a citrus oil dressing with bread crumbs and red peppers. It was good, but a bit bland and lacking in acidity.
I ordered the house made Testa Rossa from the appetizer menu. Testa is head cheese, which is a cold cut meat dish made from the head of a pig, calf, cow or sheep. The head of a freshly slaughtered animal is carefully cleaned and prepped, then it’s simmered in a large stockpot for hours until the meat falls right off the skull. All of these juicy tender bits of meat along with the stock, are refrigerated to set in pans or molds to make a terrine, or rolled into a large sausage. The collagen from all of the cartilage and bone marrow of the skull gives head cheese that gelatin-like consistency when cooled. Head cheese is usually eaten chilled or at room temperature so that all of that wonderful collagen doesn’t melt.
The testa was garnished with radish, mint, lemon and watercress. As you can see, theirs is a rolled testa (looks like a slice of pancetta), as opposed to a terrine with chopped up bits. It was heavy in fat content and low on meat, which went well with the tart acidic garnish, but somehow I was left unsatisfied.
We ordered the Nizza pizza with black olive, anchovy, sweet onion, capers and thyme. Riva makes thin crust pizzas.
Our server told us that the pizza is made without cheese, but if we wanted it with cheese, it was an additional 2 dollars. I wish they would either not offer the cheese option if the cheeseless pizza was their original inspiration, offer the cheese option gratis, or indicate the $2 cheese option charge on the menu. Was I being too picky or is it the noise level getting to me? Well, we did order the pizza with cheese. The pizza was well done, and the crust was done the way I like it- crispy on the outside, doughy on the inside. The flavor of the toppings came together nicely and it made for a nice shared appetizer.
For main entrees, we ordered the monkfish, lamb, and seafood bouillabaisse.
Monkfish saltimbocca on a bed of potato puree, spinach and pancetta, with a sage and marsala sauce.
Braised lamb in a tomato sauce over a bed of three color cauliflower and creamy semolina with a hint of smoked cheese and parsley gremolata. I didn’t taste the monkfish dish, but the lamb dish was fantastic. The lamb cubes were very tender, and each bite had so many layers of flavors- the rich and robust tomato flavored lamb stew, followed by the creaminess of the semolina, with a smokey cheese undertone, finishing off with the tart freshness of the gremolata. I wanted to order that dish but since somebody else was getting that, I decided to go with something else for variety. I regretted this decision.
Fra Diavolo is a tomato based sauce with garlic and hot peppers, frequently used for pastas and seafood. According to the menu, my dish was supposed to have a half lobster, shrimp, mussels, clams, squid, and fregola sarda. Fregola sarda is a toasted Sardinian pasta, and it looks like pearl sized cous cous or tapioca, only much denser. My dish was okay- the tomato sauce lacked richness and flavor, and the lobster meat was spongy. I was so bored with my seafood dish that I didn’t even realize it was missing the squid until I was almost done with it. Instead, it had a few chunks of tasteless unidentified white fish. I informed my server about the missing squid, and she apologized for the kitchen screw-up. Sigh…
Another turn off with the seafood dish was that the half lobster came with a fully intact large lobster claw, and they gave me a large silver lobster cracker. I was very surprised that this seemingly upscale restaurant would expect their customers to get their hands and clothes dirty trying to crack a lobster claw doused in tomato sauce. I was wearing a white silk blouse, and was not about to ruin it with bright red tomato splatter. Sigh…
There’s an entree item on the menu called Costata di Bue per due, prime rib for 2. The table close to us ordered it. They bring a big chunk of prime rib from the kitchen and the maitre d’ slices it on a rolling chopping block in front of you.
I think I was the only one who noticed that the maitre d’s jacket kept brushing up against the meat. Yuck.
I was hoping that Riva would redeem themselves with dessert, but they loved letting me down that night. I was so excited to try their Tiramisu, but I was told that they were out. How can you be out of a dessert option? That’s crazy. The others got carrot cake and gelati.
Carrot cake with pineapple sorbet.
Butterscotch gelati and peach sorbetti.
I was so let down by this point that I didn’t even have the motivation to try these desserts.
Despite my excitement about trying this restaurant, I didn’t have a good dining experience at Riva. I was thoroughly disappointed with the quality of the food, the poor service, and the low caliber of the staff. For $90 a person, I think it’s fair to expect a certain level of service and food.
The best thing about my dinner was the wine. We had a wonderful 2005 Capezzana, Barco Reale di Carmignano.
Riva is supposed to be strong on their crudo dishes and pizza. My advice for you- go to Japanese sushi restaurants for good raw fish, and Terroni or Pizzeria Mozza for better pizza. If you’re looking for a good dining experience in Santa Monica, take your loved ones to Anisette. And if you’re still keen on trying Travi’s food, stick to Fraiche.
Random trivia: Did you know that Oscar Best Actress winner Halle Berry ate raw fish so she could throw up on cue and look authentic doing it while filming the movie ‘Perfect Stranger’? Now that’s dedication to your art, girl.