Take the escalator to a slice of sunny Provence, in not so sunny St James’s
It’s narrow, it creaks a bit, and apparently can be rather temperamental, but the original 1960s escalator at Riviera still works, and still works its magic.
Patrons of the now gone Sake No Hana will remember the escalator fondly, it was all part of the dining adventure in this Grade II listed Modernist building once used to house The Economist.
The building is now a familiar part of St James’s, but it must have had The Establishment sputtering into its G&Ts when it was originally built as it looks like nothing else.
The Japanese have now gone, and after a year of renovation work the French have moved in with Riviera, well kind of. The brothers behind this, the Emerald Hospitality Group, who also own the restaurants El Norte, Zuaya, and Como Garden are Spanish.
Still, Picasso was Spanish, but is a kind of an honorary Frenchman, and the artwork that lines the escalator walls is all from the personal French collection of the Zandi brothers.
You get time to appreciate the art because the escalator proceeds at a stately pace, as befits its venerable age. At the top you enter the restaurant proper passing the open kitchen and then pause, awed by the massive floor to ceiling windows that line the restaurant.
It’s all been done very well, and rather expensively. The chairs, for example, are so solid I can barely move mine, while my wife wonders if hers has been glued to the floor. Staff rush to help of course and we’re soon happily sitting in front of the majestic bar.
The menu rather charmingly meanders across two pages, rather than in any formal structure, and has plenty of choice without being overpowering. Even so there are starters that compete for my attention, with a Truffle and Cheese stuffed Courgette Flower in Tempura winning out.
It comes not just as a flower but with a mini courgette still attached and it is rather glorious, the unctuous ooze of the flower’s filling contrasting with the firm courgette and the crispy batter.
I happily eat it down to the stem. One small criticism though is that I only have a spoon and fork to work with, a knife and fork would have been far more practical.
Meanwhile P is forking about in her Endive, Brillat Savarin and Smoked Duck Breast Salad. Something of a French classic but not enjoyed so much here as, for some reason we Brits do not usually like endive, perhaps as we are not overfond of bitterness (except about the EU. Little bit of politics there, my name’s Ben Elton, goodnight).
This endive been grilled though, which adds a contrasting caramel sweetness, while Brillat-Savarin which sounds like a French revolutionary poet but is in fact a very creamy cheese, melts through the salad, lovingly clinging to the endive petals and the thinly-sliced smoked duck. Very nice indeed.
We don’t have a cocktail, I did fancy one but I could see the mixologist was madly busy trying to turn out cocktails for a table of ten and I knew it would take time, so instead we dive into a decent red Bordeaux that isn’t too pricey.
This goes very well with my Grilled Lamb Rack with Puy Lentils, a simple earthy dish that relies on quality lamb and here gets it in spades. The lamb is perfectly cooked, just out of the pink zone, but only barely, which is just right. It’s a generous number of chops and I do have a little gnaw, as it is obligatory. One small caveat here is the lentils, although cooked in a good stock, are over salted.
‘Dover sole meunière’, (or ‘miller’s style’ in l’anglais), is another very simple and classic dish, which has sadly all but disappeared from modern menus. The ‘miller’ bit simply means the fish is dusted with flour before frying in order to help seal it. A beurre noisette is swiftly made in the pan after the fish is taken out, and it’s then served with a dusting of capers and some lemon wedges.
Fresh fish is key and this is flapping fresh, beautifully thick and white, and P orders fries with hers which I mock gently, before pinching a load of them. They are very good fries, thin and crisp. We both have French (what else?) beans with confit onion, and apparently chilli, but I can’t taste any of it, to accompany. The fish is a generous portion which P can’t finish, but wishes she could.
This leaves her room for a tarte tatin, which is as caramelly and as sticky as anyone could wish for, one of France’s iconic desserts done very well. Another icon is my creme brûlée, the sugar top shell just the right thickness requiring two taps, and no more, to crack open to reveal the smooth, rich creme. The lavender sprig and scent was a perfect evocation of Provence.
Leaving we make the classic mistake of going back round the route we came, only to be confronted with the escalator going the wrong way. You have to go out the other end of the restaurant to find the ‘down’ escalator. After a bottle of red, this can be confusing.
Riviera, like the brothers’ other restaurants, is high end and not cheap, but unlike the other restaurants it has a remarkable space that is worth the price of entry on its own. Recommended.
23 St James St, London SW1A 1HA
There are complimentary cabaret evenings on 16th June and 8th July. Guests will be treated to a show fwith dancers, singers, and acrobats from 8PM until 10:30PM.
The fun can be continued in Riviera’s newly opened lounge and bar area after the show as the resident DJ will be playing from 11pm to 2am. If attending on 16th June, guests can also enjoy a 50% discount off drinks in the lounge area after their meal.