Bulgari Hotel, 171 Knightsbridge, London, SW7 1DW, United Kingdom

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Rivea opened in May 2014 in the Bulgari hotel, in the space formerly occupied by Il Ristorante. This time Alain Ducasse has been brought in to work his magic. This is actually the second Rivea, the first being at the exclusive Byblos hotel in St Tropez.  The dining format is a casual small plates restaurant offering a mix of French and Italian dishes. Of course, this being the Bulgari hotel, casual means guests wear Armani blazers rather than suits. Waiters are slightly awkwardly kitted out with Converse trainers, presumably to reinforce the Mediterranean casual theme, which would be easier to pull off on the French Riviera than a Knightsbridge basement.

As for “small plates”, well it means unexpectedly high bills as it does everywhere, which is why it is so beloved as a format by restaurateurs. The dining room seats 82 diners at once, plus a private dining room for a dozen. The room has the same spectacular staircase as before, but the recent revamp now emphasises the culinary theme via its central wooden table displaying jars of pasta and assorted fresh vegetables, though getting one’s imagination to the Mediterranean from this basement dining was always going to be a stretch. One little touch that did appeal to me was the napkins. It is an odd peccadillo to have, but I really dislike tiny napkins, especially ones that can barely perch on your lap and easily slip off on to the floor. By contrast I love to see large, generous napkins, ones that could double as an item of clothing in a pinch. The napkins at Ducasse’s Plaza Athenee are practically tablecloths in their own right, and why the Rivea ones are not quite on this scale, they are comfortingly lavish, made of luxurious linen.

The head chef is Damien Leroux, a Ducasse veteran who previous worked in Monaco and Provence for ten years at related properties in the Ducasse group, including at the flagship Louis XV. Guests are recommended to try two starters (priced at £6 to £11), one pasta dish (from £9 to £10) and one main course (£11 to £23). Desserts were priced at £6. There was also a £35 three-course lunch option. Two of the three breads were made from scratch in the kitchen, an interesting lemon bread and good dark olive bread, while a sourdough was supplied from Marc bakery in west Brompton (15/20 bread). Charcuterie is sourced from an Italian family, the Spigaroli Brothers in the Po Valley.

The wine list was oriented mainly to France and Italy, though there were choices from elsewhere as well. The list started at £25 and example wines were Marcel Deiss Riesling 2009 at £58 for a wine that retails at £20, Maremma Massa Vecchia 2009 at £90 for a wine that you can find in a shop for £35, up to grander labels such as Gaja Barbaresco at £350 for a wine that will set you back around £125 in a shop. These are not the worst mark-ups you will see n London, though £6 for a bottle of mineral water is simply extortionate. As we browsed the menu a tray of eight dips was presented along with some grissini bread. The flavours were chickpea and sesame, bell pepper, aubergine and chilli, courgette and marjoram, olive and anchovy, beetroot and horseradish, fennel and star anise and finally tomato and balsamic. These were harmless enough, though the ones notionally with spices were quite subdued. I liked the chickpea one best, but the little pots were not very practical, too small to easily dip into.

Asparagus with Parmesan turned out to be sourced from Italy, of good quality and carefully cooked, garnished with shavings of the cheese (14/20). Garden pea soup came with little ravioli of Tuscan pecorino cheese, the peas having nice flavour, the seasoning accurate (15/20).  

Piscaline pie was a vegetarian dish with Swiss chard, peas, artichokes, broad beans, ricotta and parmesan cheese wrapped in delicate pastry, served with frisee lettuce. The pastry was delicate and the filling was enjoyable, using good quality vegetables (16/20). A Mediterranean salad was wrapped in socca, a thin, unleavened fried chickpea pancake. The pancake was light, the olives, beans and tuna inside again hinting at the Mediterranean, a theme of the restaurant (14/20).  

The meal stepped up a gear with the pasta course. Ravioli of artichoke and borrage had very delicate pasta indeed, the artichoke excellent and again with careful seasoning (16/20). Even better were potato gnocchi with sage and Parmesan, the gnocchi cloud-like in texture, strikingly light with a subtle flavour of sage and cheese. I have eaten a lot of gnocchi in my life, and this was some of the best I have tried (18/20).

Duck with turnip and beetroot was cooked pink, the bird itself from Bresse and having lovely flavour, the beetroot particularly good (16/20). Gilt head bream with pesto and baked vegetables was carefully cooked, the pesto not too strong (15/20).

Desserts are often a strong point in Ducasse restaurants and so they proved here. Pastry chef Alexandre Talpaert was pasty sous chef at Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester and had previously worked in locations from Courcheval to Hong Kong. Chocolate tart had a pleasing bitter chocolate and delicate pastry (17/20). Lemon shortbread with limoncello sorbet was beautifully balanced and delicate (17/20).  Rhubarb and strawberry with almond ice cream was excellent in itself and came with stunning palmier biscuits (17/20). The latter could have come straight from a 3 star Michelin pastry section. 

If you follow the waiter guidance in terms of the number of dishes then the food part of the bill will be around £55 plus service. Our bill came to £119 a head all in, but this included wine and some extra drinks. A realistic typical bill with a modest bottle of wine to share at dinner would be around £85 a head. Service was absolutely superb, the staff clearly carefully trained, the topping up flawless and waiters able to answer every question without reference to the kitchen. This was a remarkably slick service operation for a restaurant that had been open just a week. I was impressed with Rivea, whose menu was very appealing and had some seriously skilful cooking, shown in the stunning gnocchi and serious desserts. Even one week into operation tables were being turned around us.  


Further reviews: 22nd Jul 2014

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