Of Another Time and The River
The sunset bathes the River Café is streaks of golden light.
Sometimes dinner is just a meal. Sometimes dinner is work, a restaurant I decide to check out that isn’t worth writing about. Often enough the meal turns out to be a surprisingly good on a cozy evening with friends. But occasionally dinner is a rare and delicious indulgence as it was for four of us on a July Saturday at The River Café.
I never tire of watching the river traffic and night falling over the Manhattan skyline.
The truth is I could go to the River Café once a month if I wanted to. Even once a week, though the round-trip taxi from the Upper West Side to the edge of Brooklyn costs twice as much as the prix fixe. Buzzy O’Keefe has never said “no room at the inn” to me. Nobody seems to care about my extravagances.
Buzzy O’Keefe poses with many of the stars chefs who have passed through the River Café kitchen.
The last time I sat windowside at the River Café was following the long and costly restoration O’Keefe organized to counter the havoc of Sandy. Images of the devastating loss were reported: the precious wine bottles bobbing, the piano solid but ruined, the kitchen twisted metal, a fish swimming in the dining room. The long march back, a marathon, stretched out over 15 months.
I came to know O’Keefe as he was restoring the River Café after Hurricane Sandy’s devastation.
I only got to know O’Keefe when I started following his determined drive to recreate the café…only stronger and better. Buzzy is an icon of perfection and stubbornness, wry, a notorious fussbudget with his own unique patter. First night back, he follows our gaze out the window and complains that Frank Gehry’s residential highrise on Spruce Street has cut off the view of the Woolworth Building.
A lobster entrée with Brussels sprouts.
It had taken a waterside-obsessed O’Keeffe 12 years to collect all the permissions he needed to open a café on a barge in what was then a desolate wharf area under the keening Brooklyn Bridge. Now he wasn’t just cleaning up, restoring and replacing with no expense spared (antiques and art of the period). He was fanatically rebuilding the battered barge for any storm five times as powerful — pillars and lashing, five coats of spar varnish, double sound-proofing — and updating the kitchen, improving the flow, walk-in coolers with little carry-out windows, a new system for storing seafood, a pastry section with a glass wall to catch the view. Click here to read The River Café for the Next 100 Years, March 17, 2014.
When the Café reopened after Sandy, crowds pressed in. Waiters had to walk sideways in the abbreviated aisles.
That first night the room was so packed, waiters could only scoot sideways through non-existent space. I wonder if anyone else in the room tonight is remembering those particular evenings of celebration, though all four of us have history here. That doesn’t mean conversation isn’t interrupted by a slow-passing tanker, the flames of sunset, the constant docking of a ferry I don’t recall seeing before.
Char-grilled Portuguese octopus might be served with Marcona almond and sunchoke purée.
We’re not interested in the six-course chef’s tasting at $175. Too much food. Too long an evening. That the three-course dinner now costs $145 is not the point. “There’s no need to order different dishes,” I say. “Choose what you really want.”
Like the alumni of star chefs before him, chef Brad Steelman honors the American heritage of the River Café.
The bread arrives, chewy whole grain rolls, small baguettes, and crusty slices of rye. Chef Brad Steelman has a long residence here. Descriptions of his inventions may sound fussy on the plate but they are balanced in the taste. He has a knack for the perfect cooking of shellfish and sea creatures. His first amuse is tiny and complex: smoked brook trout wrapped in a crisp brick pastry with apple and celery gel, dried spinach and cucumber.
Tonight’s amuse is smoked Brook trout in a crisp pastry wrap with apple and celery gel and dried spinach.
Kusshi oyster and horseradish tartare is topped with Golden Osetra caviar.
A Kusshi oyster with a zing of horseradish tartare and golden osetra caviar follows. And then a buffalo ricotta ravioli with aged Caciocavallo di Bufalo cheese and foraged morel mushroom fondue. “Foraged” morels, of course.
The crab cake is a mix of Maine Peekytoe and Maryland jumbo lump crabs with finger lime vinaigrette.
Two of us have ordered the sautéed Maryland and Maine crabcake with uni vinaigrette, sliced avocado, a flutter of herbs and basil aioli. My friend is not an uni fan and insists I take hers. Yes, of course. I don’t feel need to pass the luscious crab for a taste of the burrata with spring vegetables, Toybox heirloom tomatoes and croutons. But I’m to blame for my pals’ reflexes to pass and share, so I can’t complain.
Buffalo ricotta ravioli with aged cacciocavallo di buffalo cheese sits in foraged morel mushroom fondue.
The branzino from Spain, smartly crusted with a frosting of wild shrimp puree, garlic, shallot, lemon zest and chilies in egg white and Amy’s Pullman bread, is too firm for me, but again, I didn’t order it and I didn’t specify, so I have no right to grumble. The fish comes with a feisty Romesco sauce made with emulsified fish stock and saffron, and with zucchini diced and bound with cauliflower puree.
My rare duck breast has an apple-honey spice crust and sits in a wild huckleberry and Verjus reduction.
I’m totally pleased with my apple-honey and spice crusted duck breast with roasted root vegetables and farro in a wild huckleberry sauce. It would be a little less chewy if it were a little less rare, but I do prefer it rare. I had duck at my last dinner here and it looked exactly the same.
The aristocratic rack of lamb from Master Purveyors of Colorado Springs has an unusually complex flavor.
Two of my friends have ordered the rack of lamb and cannelloni in a whipped ricotta foam. It tastes of Swiss chard, onion, pistachios, arugula pesto and Pecorino cheese. They debate which of them will give me a chop. I ask for the seriously rare one. In exchange, I feel obligated to surrender more of my duck than I would like.
Buttermilk sorbet sits on lemon chiffon sponge and is flanked with ovals of blackberry and cider sorbets.
Buttermilk sorbet on lemon chiffon sponge cake with scoops of blackberry and cider sorbets alongside is my idea of a perfect finale. I would never order the chocolate Brooklyn Bridge myself, but I’m glad when someone at my table does, and I get a big chunk of the roadway.
Valrhone “Dulcey” soufflé with roasted pineapple ice cream.
Buzzy stops at our table just as a small plate of four different mignardises arrives. I thank him for the best table and the miraculous sunset. “The lamb is especially wonderful,” I say. “It has a unique flavor.”
Char-grilled 16-ounce Niman Ranch strip steak with red wine mushroom marmalade.
“You just have to buy the best,” he responds. “There isn’t a lot of the best to buy.”
The waiter drops off one little plate of mignardises. “There are for me,” I tell Buzzy, “but what about candies and cookies for my friends?” He seems a bit discombobulated at first, but then he asks a waiter to bring more. Four chocolates arrive and he shuffles off. It’s dark now but the annoying ferry is still delivering passengers nearby.
The engrance is banked with flowers and the tables in the middle row all have beautiful boquets.
We linger silently, seemingly mesmerized by the reflections in the dark sky, or perhaps the end parade of sweets. “Maybe we should go,” I say. “I don’t want to miss my morning workout.”
1 Water Street, Brooklyn. 718 522 5200. Monday to Friday breakfast 8:30 am to 11:30 pm. Saturday lunch and Sunday brunch 11:30 am to 2:30 pm. Dinner Monday to Sunday 5:30 pm to 11 pm.