These days, restaurants come and go. Every week foodie websites announce the latest openings, and the unfortunate shutters. In the day and age when some celebrity chefs operate over 20 restaurants, opening and closing a few of them simply isn’t that big of a deal anymore. In fact, the pace of the culinary scene is so quick that Per Se is sometimes described as a New York classic, although it opened in 2004, only over 6 years ago.
I enjoy a restaurant’s historical significance, and there are not many that are more important to the landscape of New York dining than The River Cafe.
If Peter Luger’s set the example for a New York Porterhouse Steak, The River Cafe was a pioneer in American dining. Founded in 1977 (30 years before Jean-Georges) in a derelict portion of Brooklyn right under the Brooklyn bridge, one could imagine the obstacles this restaurant faced back in the 70s.
Against tremendous odds, this restaurant struck a cord with the diners of New York City. Not only did The River Cafe offer spectacular views (always better from the outside looking in), the restaurant also attracted great talent, and insisted on high quality ingredients. In fact, it was during his time at The River Cafe when Larry Forgione (father of Iron Chef America Marc Forgione) coined the phrase “Free Range Chicken” while working with local producers to secure the freshest local ingredients.
So how does River Cafe fare in 2011? It’s doing surprisingly well, through a blend of the timeless surroundings and the updated menu.
Driving up to the River Cafe still hints at its old-fashioned prestige. Cars enter the private “driveway” that feels like an extension of the city street, and arrive at the small roundabout at the end of the driveway with valet parking. In a city where meeting a reservation is usually a mad dash for parking, this is a nice change of pace.
While the space is a throwback to the last century, the menu is properly updated for the 21st century. With that said, the River Cafe is no longer a beacon of culinary innovation. Items on the menu should be familiar to most discerning New York diner, and the obsession with tartare continues.
I chose to experience The River Cafe for Sunday brunch, getting some time under the mid-day sun, and take in the stunning views of Lower Manhattan. The River Cafe is a picture of romance for dinners under the city lights, but for the winter, that’s a tad cold for my liking.
Appetizers started off with an exciting display of flavors and colors. On the Wagyu steak tartare, a star shaped arrangement of spices and condiments adorned the mound of diced beef, topped with an quail egg. It was quite a bit of fun to mix things up on the plate, and enjoy the surprisingly balanced array of flavors it created. The empty quail egg was secured with a hardened confection onto the plate, and contained sea salt for extra seasoning.
The seafood trio was a mix of Japanese (tartare topped with avocado), Chinese (lobster dumplings), and South East Asian (lime flavored crispy shrimp). These 3 small plates all taste good on their own, but do not have the cohesion of complimentary flavors. It was definitely more like 3 small appetizers bunched into one because of the Asian elements.
For entrées, the branzino fillet had a delicious crusty charred lemon confit. The smoked tomato petals were an amazing presentational touch, and really showcases the skills and attention to detail. The fillet itself was very moist and tender, and the zucchini and sausage provided great flavor.
Duck steak and eggs on the other hand had the opposite of a fine-dining presentation. The colors were dark, and plating uninspiring. However, the flavors of the charred skin on the duck was excellent, and the eggs really help create a hearty breakfast.
Visits like this make me wonder what the place was like back during its heyday, with a new luxurious atmosphere and waterfront views that draw the NYC elite. Today’s River Cafe is still considered a fine-dining destination, but is no longer part of the elite. Having enjoyed many fine dining establishments in the city, I don’t think The River Cafe has fallen, but instead the dining landscape has moved forward. Consider us lucky to live and eat in this city.
What does this rating mean?
River Cafe (Make a Reservation)
1 Water St
Brooklyn, NY 11201