A fish house reimagined at Riviera House Redondo Beach
by Richard Foss
If more Americans were bilingual, we’d discover that some things that sound classy or special really aren’t. That boutique you visited to look at high-priced fashion? The word boutique means “little storehouse” in French, and didn’t acquire its upscale connotation until the 1960s. Riviera is another example, it is Italian for coast. We associate it with beach resorts because Lord Byron and other early 19th century Englishmen went to Italian fishing villages to escape the British weather, and it has had the connotation of genteel leisure ever since.
The developers who started Hollywood Riviera in the 1920s had talent when it comes to naming things, and some of that glamour lives on in Riviera Village today. That lively nightlife district has a new star in the Riviera House, which as Sophie’s was noted mainly for upscale burgers and eclectic beers. They’ve gone considerably upscale now, and the menu is heavy on craft cocktails and seafood. The atmosphere is casual and the sound level very high, so if you’d like to converse in anything like normal tones it’s best to sit on the patio.
In two visits I had a chance to try a fair portion of the menu, including starters of ahi poke wontons, octopus “al fuego,” a burrata salad, and chowder tots. Like anything involving tater tots, chowder tots are a guilty pleasure and weirdly addictive. Anyone watching their diet probably wouldn’t be eating clam chowder in the first place, but putting it over tater tots takes things to a different level. I’d happily have a bowl of this chowder by itself because it was excellent, or I might order the chowder tots as an entrée and resolve to exercise vigorously the next day to make up for it.
The tuna poke wontons and octopus are on the lighter side, though both are good sized starters for two people. The wontons were expertly made and have a slight piquancy thanks to a drizzle of sauces, sprinkling of scallions, and dash of seaweed salad. It’s everything you like about poke but it goes crunch, and that’s about all you need to know. The octopus is a more unorthodox standout, with big pieces of tentacle skewered with onion and grilled, then set atop a very spicy sweet chipotle chili sauce. That sauce was so good that I wanted to get every drop of it, so was thankful for the garlic toast that was also on the plate. If you like spicy seafood, this is a must-have item.
The burrata salad was a jazzed-up version of something composed usually of tomatoes, basil, cheese, and olive oil with a sprinkle of pepper and herbs. This one adds micro-greens, spring mix, a lemon pepper balsamic glaze, and olive tapenade to the mix. It’s not really a burrata salad at all, but something else built on the base of one. The flavor mix is sound and it’s a good salad, but I’d say that a name change is in order.
My companions and I tried four main courses: fish and chips, lobster pappardelle, pan-seared halibut, and the vegetarian cannelloni. We tried the cannelloni because two different servers rated it as one of the best items on the menu, and I will admit that it was a hearty, well made vegetable-stuffed tube pasta with a nice pesto sauce. I’d quibble with best, though, because the halibut and the lobster pasta were a cut above. They were also on the conservative side compared to most of the starters, but that’s not unusual – at most restaurants the greatest creativity is in the appetizers. Apparently most diners want to savor innovation at the beginning of their meal and have comfort food for the main course.
Calling something comfort good is no insult, because it is, by definition, the thing we most enjoy. The halibut was a substantial portion of pan-seared fish topped with sage butter sauce over a wild mushroom risotto, with grilled zucchini on the side. The ideas are simple, seafood with citrus butter, rice with creamy mushroom, a natural grilled vegetable, but when it all comes together it’s completely satisfying.
The lobster pasta was a bit more unusual thanks to a very thick sauce that contained mascarpone cheese, tomato, and enough red pepper to lend a gentle bite. It accented the big chunks of lobster, yellow squash, and zucchini that were mixed in with fresh thin pasta cooked to a perfect al dente. The portion was very generous for $28, and it was a standout dish.
The fish and chips was a disappointment by comparison because it was made competently but was unexceptional, and the fries were slightly underdone. When I mentioned this to our server, he surprised me by lowering our bill, which was a generous gesture.
Riviera House has a decent wine and beer list but some very unusual cocktails, both classic and modern. One classic is Philadelphia Fish House Punch, a concoction that was the rage in 1732 and was traditionally served at parties in a bowl big enough to accommodate several geese. They dispense with the ceremonial bowl here but serve a generous portion of the rum-based punch that also contains apple brandy, peach, and nutmeg. Their version isn‘t precisely the same as that the one that George Washington savored, but it has the antique balance of citrus, stone fruit, and alcohols. It’s also both delicious and potent, so I suggest you stop at one or have someone else drive. Their house cocktails show talent at combining flavors, particularly the Perfect Stranger, their updated take on the Pisco sour, and the Jack Torrance, but I wasn’t as much a fan of the Clean Slate. I happen to like elderflower, Chartreuse, sherry, and aquavit, but the mix of herbal and floral was a bit overwhelming. I’m glad I tried it just to see what it was, but won’t be getting that one again.
The dessert list at Riviera House is strangely short – a peanut butter mud pie, gelato, or sorbet. I’m not a fan of mud pies and didn’t feel like gelato on a cold night, so skipped it. This kitchen has talent to spare, so I’m sure they can come up with something else if they put their minds to it. Riviera House is on track to being a major dining destination in an area with plenty of competition, and it will be interesting to see how they mature and what new heights they achieve.
Riviera House is at 1708 South Catalina in Redondo. Open daily for lunch 11 a.m. – 2:30 p.m., dinner at 4 p.m., close 11 p.m. Sun.-Thurs., 1 a.m. Fri.-Sat.. Street parking. Wheelchair access good, patio dining, interior loud, patio moderate. (310) 540-8484, menu at rivierahouserb.com.
by Richard Foss