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Stylish Survivor

The Riviera is the Sean Connery of restaurants: It shows its age well.
Stephen P. Karlisch

It's been going strong in Dallas since its inception in 1984. After 17 years of critical acclaim--and a kitchen run at various times by chefs David Holben and Lombardi Mare's Tom Fleming, and now by former Hotel St. Germain chef Michael Marshall--The Riviera has successfully thrived in Dallas' mercilessly competitive restaurant market. Still, it's hard to escape one of the inevitable signs of age: The Riviera is tired. This fatigue is hard to define, yet it is abundantly present, hovering around the place like a thick, puffy cloud.

The Riviera's décor is a wash of muted yellows set off by hoary oil paintings, a couple of them with minor damage. No music pipes through the dining room, leaving the jingle and clatter of the tableware to mix with honey-tongued chatter.

Yet one of the Riviera's most quaint components, one that ages like a matron with a book of plastic-surgery gift certificates, is the service. The Riviera's service is attentive and well-orchestrated to the point of dizziness. Wine glasses are whisked away immediately after the wine is ordered and replaced to reflect the appropriate type of wine. The ensuing service is impeccable, right to the wiping of the dribbles from the lip of the wine bottle. Glasses are filled as soon as the supply in the glass gets low, as if a pair of eyes hovers over the table waiting for the wine level in the glass to drop below 1 ounce.

Servers, too, are well-briefed on the menu, answering detailed questions without so much as a brain-strained stutter. Delicious warm rolls (whole wheat and rosemary) are replaced as soon as you start licking the crumbs from the last one off your fingers.

Yet somehow all of this proper formality leaves you a little chilly, making you yearn for a demeanor with a little more casual warmth and friendliness, or at least a little less starch on the waitstaffs' shirts.

The food, too, can be formal. But chef Marshall's touch often gives it the raciness and odd twists it needs to keep you from taking a nap on the rosemary rolls.

This feel begins immediately. A delicate crepe filled with slivers of duck meat girdled by arugula and sun-dried tomato had all the savory balance and crafty piquancy a meal needs to keep the mouth water flowing at a flash-flood pace. A meandering puddle of Dijon sauce somehow jilted the flavors into smokiness.

The housemade angel hair pasta with Italian parsley, pecorino cheese and porcini mushroom sauce looked like a heap of tangled string in ink. The pasta locks were perfectly cooked and rested in a slightly viscous puddle of rich, well-balanced mushroom sauce.

But slipping off the lofty plateau was the wild mushroom butternut squash risotto with basil and threads of crispy leeks scattered about. The blend was mushy and a bit bland with indistinct risotto grains that merged with the other components, making more of a slush than a creamy dish.

Foie gras poivre, however, was nearly flawless. A pair of liver lobes, scorched into firmness with a crust of pepper, was laid over slices of pear and porcini mushrooms sewn with a healthy pinch of watercress. It looked like a club sandwich for a French culinary snob. This layering was surrounded by smears of black currant glaze. Texturally, the liver was within a hair's breadth of nirvana, or at least purgatory. The flavors negotiated a balance of delicate richness. Yet there was a tiny fly in this liver ointment: The pear was a bit clumsy in this context, appearing as thick slices fanned under the foie gras and fighting it a little. Perhaps an unobtrusive layer of thin overlapping slices would have been a more effective enhancement.

Shrimp bisque was heavy-handed. This thick, concentrated and heavily salted soup with a dollop of caviar perched on a touch of crème fraîche flaunted its robustness without any interesting agility, hitting the tongue more as a rich sauce than a deft soup.

For a long time, The Riviera has been among the few buttoned-down, fine dining restaurants in Dallas with the ability to make every facet of the supping experience gleam--this despite its rather humble beginnings. The Riviera was launched by dapper front man Franco Bertolasi in a former Steak & Ale shell after he gathered 20 partners, each of them ponying up $25,000. Since then, it seems Bertolasi's charisma and graciousness have fueled the restaurant, and his personal magnetism has a potent pull. Before moving to Dallas some 30 years ago, Bertolasi made a name for himself in Liverpool, England, where he was known to hobnob with a pair of musical bugs known as John and Paul. He even appeared as an extra in the film Gigi, banging a drum in a marching band.

Nowadays, Bertolasi struggles with Parkinson's disease, which on the surface hasn't dimmed his resilience or his graciousness. Still, it would be almost unbearable to observe his gut-wrenching stumbles, which bring him to his knees, if he didn't recover with such grace and dignity. It's hard to imagine a restaurant front man with more courage.

That fortitudinous grace peeks through in a number of places, ebbing its way into the dining experience, almost without notice. For example, on the surface, The Riviera has a somewhat conventional wine list, pumped up with cabs and chards. But a closer look reveals little stretches of absorbing interest intermingled among the Jordan cabernets and the Kendall Jackson chardonnays. The Riviera stocks a couple of Alsatian wines, a pair of German wines and a handful of wines from the Loire Valley. Plus the Bordeaux are arranged by district (with first and second growths indicated), and the Italian reds are arranged by region, something rarely seen outside of Italian restaurants.

Which is good, because the outer reaches of this wine list pair well with the food offerings. The Minnesota walleyed pike with roasted roma tomato, apple mushroom ragout and warm balsamic vinaigrette, a special, would go well with those Alsatian whites. Unfortunately, this dish was somewhat of a disappointment. The flesh was rubbery and dry, perhaps from overcooking, and it lacked the delicate sweetness often found in this spiny fish. The saving grace on this plate was the ragout, which sparked the orchestration with its prominent apple tang.

The Australian rack of lamb had bones that were immaculately white, as if they had been scoured with Brillo before serving, and the meat was almost as polished with mildly racy flavors and a plush juiciness that merely whispered of potent gaminess. Also on the plate was sautéed red cabbage seasoned with vinegar and an elegant swirl of pureed acorn squash that looked like a puff of soft-serve ice cream. A delicious dab of mango mint chutney tossed in an aromatically sweet tone: a deft perversion of the ubiquitous dollop of mint jelly.

A small dish of scalloped potatoes accompanied the lamb. Potato slices were supple and separate, yet creamy and topped with a delicious oven-forged crust.

Riviera's venison, served over a heap of apricot polenta, was lasciviously silky, with deep black red that deepened as the eye moved from the grilled-gray edges to the center. The meat was elegantly flavored, with no harsh gamy notes, but it was cast in a flood of concentrated Calvados brandy sauce that overpowered the meat. It might have done better if accented with a sauce of less strength.

Oven-roasted pheasant with wilted arugula and glazed shallots in a lavender honey sauce was served as a stack of parts that were largely deboned. The flesh was tasty, but it was dry and spongy, as if perhaps it had been overcooked.

Dessert also disappointed a bit. The Granny Smith apple tatin, slices of apple in a thick, syrupy sauce with ice cream, was a bit overwhelmed by the unctuous sauce. More of an emphasis on the naturally sharp Granny Smith juices would perhaps balance this out, though a dash of spearmint elevated it a bit.

But slightly off-key finishing notes won't mar the tenacious elegance The Riviera has honed as an implement of jungle survival. If it can keep the service system tuned and the food from sinking into mediocrity, there won't be much need to configure the décor. Or pipe in Kenny G.


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