Riviera is the kind of restaurant that you really want to like. It isn't glitzy or pretentious and it is rather difficult to find, making it a perfect contender for the little gem in the middle-of-nowhere/reliable local restaurant accolade. Unfortunately, the standard of food at this Italian spot simply isn't good enough to warrant such a title.
I have no doubt that a few years ago, when the restaurant was new and the kitchen team was full of enthusiasm, Riviera produced top-notch pizza, pasta and tricolore salads in an atmospheric setting. The signs are certainly there: the menu is authentic, the staff are attentive and a table on the terrace, overlooking the marina, feels a world away from the centre of Abu Dhabi. Sadly, though, these days the place has a desultory air.
I began with bresaola, fig, parmesan and rocket antipasti, which is the kind of dish that on paper sounds like my dream starter. Alas, it didn't taste like it. The thin slices of air-dried beef had a tacky, plastic-like texture and they lacked discernible flavour. The figs were equally bland and although fresh, the rocket leaves were served without dressing. A few slivers of rich, aged parmesan, flecked with salty crystals, added some much-needed flavour clout, but this wasn't enough to save the dish. It baffles me that a chef would serve undressed salad leaves, when a slick of good quality olive oil, mixed with a squeeze of lemon and a bit of salt and pepper does so much to bring the ingredients to life. The other starter we tried (scamorza in padella) was much better: a thick layer of smoked cheese melted into a generous portion of wild mushrooms, which were well-seasoned and nicely cooked - tender, with a bit of bite.
The pizza was the major disappointment of the meal and this was obvious from the moment that it was placed in front of us. Pizza should come out of the oven blisteringly hot, oozing gooey, golden cheese with a thin, crisp base and a slightly scorched crust. In this case, the base was undercooked and quickly became soggy, and the cheese was pale, gloppy and had barely been given time to melt. The topping ingredients seemed to have been scattered over a circle of partly baked dough, which had then been warmed through, rather than baked in a searing hot pizza oven. This was a real shame.
Jumbo prawns were certainly true to their name; three large prawns were pleasantly charred around the edges after being cooked on the grill. Unfortunately, they had spent a few minutes too long there, so rather than being moist and succulent, the meat was dry. They weren't bad, but, thanks to being served without a marinade or dressing and alongside a pile of plain, uninteresting salad leaves, they just failed to make any kind of impact. The highlight of my meal was dessert. Coffee ice cream was strong and smooth, with a decent espresso kick and this contrasted nicely with the sweetness of the coconut offering. A bowl of tiramisu, meanwhile, was distinctly underwhelming; the taste of watery sponge fingers being the predominant flavour here.
We didn't go to Riviera expecting fancy fare; a freshly prepared, nicely cooked pizza would've been enough. Sadly, though, the chefs here seem to have lost their way and much of the food lacks care and attention in the final execution. Whether we're talking about a Michelin-star restaurant or a local take-away joint, this can never be a good thing.
A meal for two at Riviera, Al Bateen Marina Resort, Bainuna Street, Abu Dhabi costs Dh370, not including service. For reservations call 02 665 0144. All reviewed meals are paid for by The National and reviews are conducted incognito.