The first time I went to Dolce Riviera, it was almost 9:30 p.m. by the time I wandered into the courtyard of moonlit palms. In search of the Harwood International group’s newest restaurant, I had ambled through the known Harwood world—past the music and lights glittering at Mercat Bistro; past Saint Ann, with its samurai armor collection, a quiet reminder that developer Gabriel Barbier-Mueller is as much art collector as real estate baron; and under the bridge where Magnolias Sous Le Pont nestles, with the hidden Marie Gabrielle set in a green enclave above.
Two blocks farther, under the glowing emblem of Frost Tower, Dolce Riviera appeared, the mirage of a Mediterranean villa set amidst terra cotta amphora. The door was swept open by a gray-suited host, who informed me the kitchen had closed for the night and then, almost in the same breath, said he would see what could be done. Within minutes, he offered me the full menu with an inviting gesture, assuring that the kitchen was happy to oblige. When I left, it was not without the tiramisu served in a martini glass with dark cacao from rim to rim, a gift given on the house with much insistence. I had arrived late, and they acted as though I were doing them a favor. This is how things happen in Harwood world.
If I was roaming at a decidedly Mediterranean hour on a Monday night, it was because I knew Dolce Riviera hired a chef from Italy who had trained in Milan and worked at the now-closed Michelin-starred Fiamma Osteria in New York. He has since left and returned to New York, so the kitchen is, for now, in the hands of executive sous chef Brian Kirksey, who has worked under Bruno Davaillon at The Mansion and Julian Barsotti at Nonna. He is one part of a larger equation that begins with the setting. As in all Harwood properties, much has gone into the interior, which reflects a wealth of resources and well-researched taste. Here, the Italian Riviera is evoked with blue-and-white checked tablecloths and low settees with velvet and sateen cushions. There are Venetian glass chandeliers and 19th-century Spanish doors. And always the unifying color scheme—whitecaps on the azure sea.
The food is of coastal Italy: the agrodolce tradition from Sicily, with lots of fish. There are olives and focaccia and hunks of Parmesan as palate openers, and a vial of good olive oil amidst the linen and silver. On the wine and cocktail menu (somewhat obnoxiously presented on a tablet), you can find a wonderful Barolo by the glass from the reserve list; bottles reward beyond the usual Pinots and Cabernets.
In many ways, the restaurant gives you exactly what you want from sun-kissed fantasies of San Remo and Capri. Enough palms shade the patio to make it feel like an oasis, and there is something rather wonderful, if a little stagey, about the table service. The salad doled out on plates—radicchio, little gem lettuce, radish slivers, and cherry tomatoes in a light lemon vinaigrette. Or grilled wedges of piadina, a flatbread with Sicilian red pesto that marries smartly with sliced chicken breast, goat cheese, and roasted cherry tomatoes, which gush in jubilant spurts.
If the cacio e pepe strikes you as unorthodox, served in a crisp Parmesan cup, don’t sweat it so much. This is the breezy coast, silk scarves blowing, convertible cruising the waterfront in view of the piercing Mediterranean blue. Say “Fair enough” and move on, because the linguini alle vongole is lovely, twined with clams in a light sauce that is an effortless meeting between white wine, garlic, and parsley. And the whole bronzino is beyond wonderful. If you’re going to serve a whole fish, it had better be good, and this one is and then some. Tender and moist, the flesh is suffused brightly with lemon and a hint of white wine and thyme, as are the mussels and clams that are also encased in the parchment papillote that your server eases open at the table, reserving for you the pleasure of flaking apart its delicate contents.
Often, dishes are excellent to the exact degree to which they are classical. Panzanella is perfect because of the crispiness of its toasted bread, which offers sturdy yet delicate crunches; a modest grating of ricotta salata is a welcome touch, cool against the cucumber. The vitello tonnato uses fresh tuna, oil-poached and blended with house-made mayonnaise, but the final plate is not angling to be anything more or less than thinly sliced veal dressed in a good tuna sauce with fat capers.
This is not a cuisine aiming to embrace the seasons or send a new culinary voice shining through every dish. Harwood is proud that the majority of products are imported. But sometimes I found the literal interpretations to be flat. The tuna entrée, encrusted with sesame seeds and served over warm caponata, was picture-perfect, but the caponata had taken the sweet-and-sour idea of Sicilian agrodolce so far that instead of the eggplant and bell peppers, turned silky with olive oil, all I could taste was the golden raisins’ response to fierce encroachments of vinegar. (Though I would rather have caponata than no caponata.)
The kitchen seems to be feeling its way at times, wondering just how faithful it needs to be. The linguini alle vongole sings, simple and eloquent. But each bite of pappardelle al cacao was like breathing through a white truffle oil fog. The dark pasta had been finished in the pan with speck and peas, but the cream sauce coated the clumped noodles unevenly, depriving the dish of life.
Ultimately, what Harwood seems to be seeking with Dolce Riviera is a classical awakening, an engagement of all your senses for a charmed moment. They are in the business of creating a world, and they do. When you leave, it’s the gurgling fountain and the splash of light on stones, as much as the aroma of truffles and the nimble grace of a well-chosen wine, that you take with you.
They’ve bottled the Riviera, offering it as full sensory experience. In that way, they have given us something more tradititionally Mediterranean than ever before. (Though I’m sure someone was tearing his hair out the evening our secondi came before our primi, lamb chops landing before half-orders of pasta.) The Michelin–starred Italian chef? Still a dream. But pockets are deep. Perhaps it is still possible in Harwood world.