Welcome to the most serene dining room in the Bay Area. That's how I always feel whenever I am treated to dinner at Rivoli on Solano Avenue in Albany/Berkeley (the border between the two towns is unclear to me). I love the smooth, matte wooden tables, the gorgeous Heath pottery of the table settings, the wood ceiling with square apertures for the soft round light fixtures, the soft browns of the walls and seats, and most of all the huge glass window that looks on to a secret garden.
To get to this room, you must traverse a narrow passage past the kitchens and the wine racks. As you enter, the maitre d' calls "Guests in the hall!" to alert the servers that there are novices on the way down. You get a tantalizing glimpse of gleaming bottles and busy kitchen before the passage opens up into this calm, inviting dining room. Whoever designed the restaurant understood that juxtaposition of busyness and peacefulness, and how it sets the mood immediately for leisure and relaxation.
This time, we were seated in the far corner away from the window in a comfy corner banquette, which I really loved, as My Beloved was close and we had the whole view of the dining room to enjoy. We were walk-ins this time but even when we make a reservation, I will ask for that table. We arrived early on a Wednesday evening, but by the time we left every table was filled and the hum of conversation was lively. One of the pleasures of the dining room is that all the tables are well spaced - no shimmying through to sit down, and conversations can be private if you like.
The menu is all about what's fresh and local today. I won't bore you with a complete rundown; suffice it to say that every entree featured something summery, and likely it will have changed by the time you go, anyway.
I chose the gougères as my starter, since I can't seem to make them well at home. They were light as a cloud and oozing a little Gruyere cheese, resting on a pool of sweet corn mornay sauce. Subtle flavors, but perfectly complementary, and beautifully cooked.
I chose chicken, shrimp, clam, and mussel adobo with paella rice as my main dish, but the "salad" that came in between was truly the highlight of the evening. Nothing was wrong with the adobo - it was wonderful and the portion so large I had to bring home half - but this salad of fresh green beans, lightly roasted marcona almonds, and ripe peach slices was simply perfect.
The green beans had just a little crunch left in them before they were tossed with a tart-but-not-overwhelming vinaigrette. The almonds were roasted (I suspect) with just the oil they come in - there is something about toasted almonds and green beans that just sings! Add to that the slices of yellow and white peaches, perfectly ripe and sweet, and resting on a little puddle of today's ricotta cheese. Oh.My.God. This salad is something I will make at home for guests - it's easy enough, and it would make a satisfying lunch all by itself. The genius was in knowing that these ingredients would all work so well together, and in preparing each element perfectly.
Let me digress for a minute to tell you about My Beloved's gazpacho salad. I had trouble deciding between it and the peach salad but, happily, he chose the gazpacho and gave me bites. Actually, to say he gave me bites is to neglect to tell you that I commandeered his bowl after the first bite and scraped up the last little bit, it was so good. I'd have licked that bowl if I hadn't had my mother's ghost on my shoulder whispering "Remember your manners!"
That's another dish I will try to replicate at home. The gazpacho was puréed finely and poured into the bottom of a soup bowl, then large chunks of heirloom tomato, cucumber, pickled red onion, and garlic toast were placed on top. We loved the contrast of pureed soup and chunky bites on top, and the whole dish was so fresh and "now" that I'd swear everything was picked that morning.
I asked for a menu as a keepsake, but the truth is that I didn't want to forget a single ingredient when I try to replicate those two salads at home.
As if those weren't good enough, the sommelier actually found good wines to go with dishes as diverse as these salads, a fish course, and chicken adobo - a rosé for him and a light red for me.
If you live in the Bay Area, or are coming for a visit, I can recommend a trip to Albany/Berkeley to sit in that lovely dining room and consume a wonderful meal. And, on the way out, don't forget to stop in the hallway by the kitchen and tell the young chefs how delicious everything was. Their faces light up with smiles of true delight, almost as wide as the smile on your own face.