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Sundown at Riva

Riva Fish House
Shmuel Thaler

Sea No Evil: Day or night, Riva Fish House has one of the best views on the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf.

A traditional seafood-house menu and a scenic location make Riva an attraction for visitors to the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf

By Christina Waters

RIVA FISH HOUSE IS ALMOST AS firmly wedded to the wharf landscape as the rowdy seals and seagulls, a beacon to visitors craving a meal with a view. It's as unpretentious as it is popular with families who like to be able to dine as they are and not worry about cost or white tablecloth dress codes. For those who insist on casual dining, this is a top spot.

The bar is always alive with good stories and laughter, much of which manages to bounce right off all that white tile work and straight into the middle of your dinner conversation--whether you want it there or not. Despite the incredibly high noise level, the views of the boats, the bay and Lighthouse Point manage to create a soothing mood.

At a dinner visit to Riva last week, my companion and I found much to disagree about--he strongly championed an appetizer that I found unworthy. And we found much to agree upon--Riva can turn out a nice piece of snapper and classic French fries, California variations on the time-honored fish and chips combo, and the service was welcoming.

In real life, we don't eat much of anything that's been deep-fried, but this review assignment seemed like a great excuse to enjoy some forbidden food. My partner sipped his draft Pyramid Wheat beer ($3), while I inquired as to the possibility of having my Storrs Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay 1994 ($4.50) served in something larger than the toy-sized goblet I'd received. My waitress, agreeing with me that the wine would have room to open and breathe in a larger container, had to admit that none was to be had.

We barely had time to sample our bread--nice flavor, gooey texture--when an order of "spicy" shrimp spring rolls ($3.95) arrived, looking as though they had been made of bread-dough cylinders stuffed with minced shrimp, pale green vegetables and a whole lot of cilantro. My dinner companion dipped his first segment into a sweetish ginger/soy sauce and pronounced it "great." I pronounced it "bland."

We both found lots to interact with in a fisherman's plate ($8.95) piled high with deep-fried calamari (the best of the lot), prawns (too-thick batter, no flavor), scallops (very moist, but greasy) and white fish. The side of perfect fries went quickly, dipped--like everything else-- into classic tartar and cocktail sauces.

Entrees were problematic. A deep bowl of mussels Provencale ($7.50) from the specials list offered lots of tasty mussels piled into a broth dotted with a few red potatoes, mushrooms, Anaheim chiles and onions. Both broth and contents were mild in flavor, and the bowl in which the bivalves were presented was broken into jagged edges at three places along the rim--a shabby effect, to say the least.

I had problems with the presentation of my thin, flat cut of sea bass ($10.50), a nicely flavored, moist piece of fish that actually stuck out both ends of the undersized plate upon which it was served. There were fresh tomatoes on top, but where was the advertised garlic? A hint, more like a rumor, was barely detectable. Is this kitchen afraid of garlic? Or of all strong flavors? Even the coleslaw, which arrived in a bowl that practically bullied the fish right off the plate, suffered from dullness. Not the least bit tart, it presented only the vaguest sweetness.

Okay, this is not a high-end temple of cuisine, but we left feeling that however great the view and reasonable the prices, Riva could pump up the seasonings and presentation more than a few notches.

Riva Fish House

Address: 500 Municipal Wharf, Santa Cruz
Phone: 429-1223
Hours: Continuous service from 11am daily.
Price: Moderate
Ambiance: ** Sleek, noisy interior with a view.
Service: *** Helpful and friendly
Cuisine: *1/2 Needs work on increasing flavor and presentation.
Overall: This is a terrific location that could prosper from a fresh look at the menu, some new dishware and a lighter hand with the fryer. Note: No credit cards accepted.

****Outstanding ***Excellent **Good *Okay

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From the November 21-27, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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