Address: 62 Sparks St, Ottawa ON
Hours: Lunch: 11:30am – 2:30pm (Mon-Fri); Dinner: 5:00pm – 10:00pm (Mon-Wed), 5:00pm – 11:00pm (Th-Sat), 5:00pm – 9:00pm (Sun)
My small-town side really shows when it comes to places like Riviera. Back in my hometown, you only need a reservation when you have a large group – and even then it’s only for your own sake, so you don’t have to wait while tables are rearranged. Reservations in Halifax, if at all needed, are easily placed a few days in advance, or less. When trying to book a weekend dinner at Riviera for my wife’s birthday, it was a no-go. Two weeks in advance. On a second try a couple months later (for a regular dinner, we didn’t delay her birthday celebration by two months), we were able to get a table three weeks ahead, and with a late (9pm) seating. Phew!
While not the sort of place that requires a sports coat, the atmosphere, menu (and the prices therein), lend themselves to a certain level of “ooo la la”, so we voluntarily dressed up for the occasion; me in the suit I got married in, and my wife in a new dress.
Located on Sparks Street just off Elgin, Riviera has foregone the touristy vibe that many of their neighbours sadly cater to, and instead embraces their location. A former bank with high vaulted ceilings, the interior celebrates the space with tasteful pilasters on the walls, and low benches and banquettes that keep the room unobstructed and lively. In the front corner is a private-ish room that evokes an old office with the wooden frame and glass windows, but open at the top. It’s a neat concept, and the walls would keep a bit of the din of the crowd out, while allowing the space to feel like part of the restaurant.
The place was still quite lively when we arrived, true to the late availability of our reservation. Other than the odd seat at the bar, and tables in between seatings, it was a full house until halfway through our lengthy meal – and even then it was far from empty when we left shortly after 11pm. We were seated right away for our reservation, and seen to immediately thereafter. One of the absolutely necessary components for a restaurant to be truly great – and to help justify steep price tags on the menu – is the service. Our server was a shining example of that – friendly and affable, knowledgeable and attentive. Plus, other staff came when necessary, bringing water top ups, or delivering our food so it didn’t sit in the pass too long.
The menu is split into four sections – raw, starters, pasta course, and mains. Being unsure about portion sizes and/or what people commonly order for a satisfying meal, I enquired and was told that a starter or two, mid-course pasta, and then mains was a pretty common order, with the portions being pretty respectable. We went on to order the burrata and tomato salad, and mushrooms on toast with shaved truffle and an egg for our two starters. For our pasta course I was able to convince my wife to go along with the blood-infused rigatoni with morcilla ragu, since we didn’t get anything too “out there” for our starters. For our mains, my other half went with another item off the pasta list, a chanterelle orecchiete carbonara, while I went with the lamb shank with celery root puree, sorghum and gremolata.
We got some wonderfully light pieces of sourdough bread with almost equally airy whipped butter. The burrata (fresh buffalo-milk mozzarella) and tomato salad arrived shortly after, with the hefty lump of cheese in a pool of mild olive oil, surrounded by wedges of vibrant tomatoes and leaves of Italian parsley. It also came with a small dish of sea salt for seasoning the inner pieces of cheese. Other than queso fresco I’ve made myself, this was probably the freshest cheese I’ve ever had, and it was definitely of a higher quality than what I had made. Still a fair bit creamy on the inside, it was mild, milky, and rich. The equally fresh tomatoes with their pop of acidity were a nice contrast, while the olive oil added some further depth. The green leaves of parsley were very mild, but brought some much-needed colour to the plate if nothing else.
The mushrooms on toast came in quick succession to our first starter, and while that dish had been all about mild and fresh flavours, this one was all rich umami. Slices of wild mushrooms adorned a thick slice of toasted bread, which sat in a butter-based sauce, and was topped with a poached egg and a good dose of finely shaved black truffle. There was a cursory dabble of chives on top, and herbs in the sauce, but surely only so that this dish didn’t have the exact same colour palette as a fat guy’s plate of food at a cheap Chinese buffet. Given the ingredients, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it was god damn delicious. If you read the above and thought anything that wasn’t similar to “I want that right the f*** now”, then I probably wouldn’t enjoy eating a meal with you. So rich. So good. An only mild complaint is that if the bread was heftier, along the lines of a brioche, it would have stood up better to the sauce and runny yolk of the egg. It wasn’t quite gross and mushy, but wasn’t far off. That said, I’m not sure if that would have made much difference for the fancy pants hot mess that was this dish.
The intimidatingly-named blood rigatoni was next. A dark-ish purple from the blood, it wasn’t nearly as potent as I thought it might be; there was no hint of the metallic taste of iron, just a certain je ne sais quoi of deeper flavour and richness that was hard to pinpoint separately from the ragu. The rough morcilla sausage also had blood added to it, making it quite dark and meaty, although it was a shade overcooked. I’m not sure what type of cheese was in thin slices on top, but I’ve never had a salty hard cheese I didn’t like, and this one was no exception.
We must have ordered our mains in between everyone else’s food, because they came out way quicker than we thought they would, especially with me having lamb. It was an impressive plate of food with the braised lamb shank atop the celery root puree and tiny bulbs of sorghum, surrounded by some veggies and a moat of au jus. The meat was ultra-tender and flavourful, tasting more like beef than lamb to me, though my wife who doesn’t like lamb confirmed it was still quite lamb-like to her. Either way, it was delicious. Green beans, baby turnip and micro greens cut through the big flavour of the lamb a little, while the puree and au jus soon turned from a delicious work of art to delicious mess of semi-liquid food. The little globules of sorghum, a grain I’m only even slightly familiar with because of the Sean Brock-portion of a season of Mind of a Chef, provided a pleasant bit of chew and textural contrast for the dish.
At this point we were full. And not just high-end-restaurant, “Oh, I’m pleasantly satisfied” full, but “Don’t bother showing me the dessert menu, I’m gonna need a breather” full. Maybe that mid-course wasn’t quite so necessary after the calorie-bomb toast.
It took a couple tries and a little time, but Riviera was well worth it. While it might not have been absolute perfection, it came pretty close, and was damned enjoyable nonetheless. Higher expectations invite higher scrutiny, after all.
Go out, dress up, and have a good time. And if you get in the semi-private room, let me know how it is!