March 17, 2014 | BITE: My Journal

The River Café for the Next 100 Years

Our table reflected in The River Café window looking out at the jeweled towers.
Our table reflected in The River Café window looking out at the jeweled towers.

          Inside what might easily be a cliché pampered and jaded New Yorker, I remain a hopeless romantic. “Euphoria is not the spirit for lucid judgments,” I wrote in “Of Food and The River,” in April 1981. “So let me admit straightaway that my unabashed crush on New York City can't help but brighten the shimmer of an outing at The River Café.” In the 35 years since, I‘ve never lost the shiver of thrill I get from the diamond-filigree of bridge and skyline across the East River, or the rush of floral exuberance, of roses in every color and “forsythia exploding in winter from concrete floors as the tide churns below from Buzzy O'Keeffe's barge-café locked onto the Brooklyn toe of the pillared city.”

The Café’s own florist plants blossoms in concrete and roses in exuberant bouquets.

          But in fact, like most of the city’s obsessed restaurant stalkers, I hadn’t thought about The River Café for a decade. Then Sandy’s storm surge left it ravaged. 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.

Buzzy O’Keeffe knows exactly what he wants, most recently he wants eternity.

          But it had taken a waterside-obsessed Michael (Buzzy) 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 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.

The pricey bottles opened at the bar reflect an upgrading of by-the-glass options.

          My friend calls. He’s heard The River Café was reopening at last and managed to book a table for two. Will I join him? Sunday. I never go out on Sunday night. But what can I say? My taxi driver has spied the twinkle of lights and found the cobbled path to the door. Of course the entrance is a spring garden on a wintry night. I expected nothing less. There’s a bottle of fabled white Burgundy and a magnum of Bordeaux among the opened wines lined up on the bar. “Yes, we’ve upgraded the wines by the glass,” the bartender says. I watch the maître d’ polishing the new piano with his handkerchief, tilting his head to catch the light, polishing more.

We’re transfixed by the altered skyline. Buzzy misses the hidden Woolworth Building.

          And then here we are at a two-top next to the wall of glass, the two of us, parked in what could be the same Parisian bistro chairs I remember, silenced mid-platitude by the display of downtown Manhattan, miraculous as always. Except there is the aura of tragedy, the sparkling Freedom spire, unfinished, to remind us of the fallen World Trade Center. But that is only a troubling flicker and after, time to remark how far north the Empire State Building beams and to fall into the intimacy of dinner waterside at The River Café.

Tomato soup reminds us of Campbell’s but the grilled cheese is ambrosial.

          We choose a $63 Gigondas because it’s a wine I like and the sommelier thinks it’s the best of the cheaper (he doesn’t use that adjective, but I do) wines on this impressive list, still larded with greats that survived in off-premise storage. And now there are new listings the wine director has added after tasting dozens of surviving bottles -- unspoiled but no longer suitable to serve because their labels had peeled away -- and finding some of the more costly vintages disappointing.

          The amuse arrives on a pretty signature plate. It seems to me the thimble of tomato soup is not very hot and tastes a little like Campbell’s (that could be a thumb’s up to Campbell’s of course). The classic grilled cheese sandwich is a savory cloud in a buttery crisp with a sliver of truffle atop, a miracle, oh my -- not like Mom’s, well not like my Mom’s. Maybe your mom was Marcella or Lidia or Paula Wolfert.

Rare grilled tuna in pancetta with foie gras mousse skirts on the edge of too fussy.

          I could order the Wagyu steak tartare or the octopus or the pear salad, but I want to see the chef’s high wire act on the $115 prix fixe. Winter black truffle vinaigrette naps my two rounds of rare Bigeye tuna wrapped in pancetta with a heart of foie gras on a pillow of foie gras mousse. It fits my memory of the café’s lame fussiness in certain years. There were times in the parade of chefs who went on to stardom -- Larry Forgione, Charlie Palmer, David Burke, Rick Laakkonen, before today’s Brad Steelman – when New Yorkers joined the affluent tourists for a birthday, an anniversary, or a wedding proposal, dismissing the food for the transcendent setting. But tonight’s tuna is big and bold, just over the edge.

Polenta agnolotti line up atop a generous mound of excellent short rib.

          Indeed, the plates seem especially generous, mostly more straightforward, free of little bells and towers and daubs. Even when Steelman devotes a certain fuss in the preparation -- sous-vide, aggressive marination, complex saucery -- his creations look like real food. My companion’s soft polenta agnolotti line up on a mound of Barolo-braised oxtail -- breathtaking in its sensual richness and caramelized edging. An abundant starter. Scattered tendrils of baby mizuna give it a fresh-from-the-farm verve.

A 16 ounce grilled strip comes with bone marrow Duchess potato.

          Our entrées look guiless. My companion happily confronts 16 ounces of steak and a hulk of marrow bone. Granted, it’s a grilled Niman Ranch strip, cross-hatched with red wine-mushroom marmalade and the marrow frosts duchess potatoes. It’s huge. It’s meat. My friend finds it perfect, though my first bite seems very chewy. A second cut from the middle is more tender.

I’m wild about this rare and meaty steak from the Pamela Anderson of ducks.

          My own duck breast must come from the Pamela Anderson of Muscovy ducks, twice as big as any I’ve been served elsewhere. It’s grilled to a marvelous crispness in its lavender and spice crusted skin and then divided into two ample steaks: rich and rare. A mound of sweet-and-sour shredded red cabbage and a toss of sweet potato spaetzle represent a starch and a veggie. Simple. Of course the kitchen fusses, but they’re not flaunting it.

Everyone and his brother does octopus these days but rarely as perfect as this one.

          Buzzy comes by. He is an icon of perfection and stubbornness, wry, a notorious fussbudget, with a funny patter. He follows our gazes out the window, complaining that Frank Gehry’s residential high-rise on Spruce Street has cut off the view of the Woolworth Building. He wants to be sure we know that the rehab is not finished yet. A month later when I return on a Saturday night, the place is packed, tables pressed close together as Buzzy makes the rounds, brushing by waiters and runners in the narrow path between tables.  “We’re still working on this,” he tells my companions. “It’s not finished yet,” he insists. “Dishes are on order. And I’m replacing those old table lights.”

Three Shells starter: Taylor Bay scallop seviche, Kumamota oysters and abalone.

          He has the kitchen send out an extra starter, the shellfish -- fabulous Taylor Bay scallops under a tangy tomato mash, tiny oysters and abalone in a shell, all nestled in ice, the platter too big to set on our small table -- a dish I’ll order next time.

This is all of a large lobster, exquisitely cooked on sweet-and-sour butternut squash.

          Steelman continues to amaze with the perfect cooking of shellfish -- from a small shrimp amuse wrapped in filo and wild Pacific Blue Shrimp to a whole poached lobster lying on a rubble of sweet and sour butternut squash with celery root purée. I’m so caught up in the voluptuous shrimp bisque of the amuse, I neglect to say I want my black sea bass “rare-ish.” It’s well flavored -- sautéed in lobster brown butter -- but for my taste, overcooked. The oversexed duck is even more wonderful than remembered.

The cheese service is world class though I suspect my cuts are larger than most.

          We’ll be nibbling on the chocolate Brooklyn Bridge with a milk chocolate marquise and raspberry sorbet as my friend and I did on that first Sunday. I suspect my cheese course was more generous than most – the five cheeses are each big enough to divide in three. The cheese and the condiments, the napkin-wrapped breads and crisps, are world class. Tables are turning. Young couples arrive for the 9:30 seating. To let me pass from my seat into the aisle, the man at the next table has to stand up. I suppose it’s unfair to condemn O’Keeffe for stuffing the house on a Saturday after the extended shutdown.

Chef-prankster David Burke got his pastry guy to do the chocolate Brooklyn Bridge.

          I miss the sound of the bridge traffic keening. (Or maybe I just miss being newly single and 40 and disco dancing after dinner.) The bridge itself no longer sings as it did in 1977 when the café finally opened. Engineers fixed that in a rehab. The house’s chocolate Brooklyn Bridge came along later and it’s not going anywhere.

Click here to read my 1994 review, Of Thyme and the River.

          This week, Buzzy sent me an inspired new vision of The River Café as a Grand Restaurant (his capital letters), linking it to the three-star Michelin inns of France. “With its unique view, in a beautiful setting with a beautiful park, it’s a Grand Restaurant…of which there are only a handful or two in New York.” Of course, Michelin three stars do not have piano players fielding special requests for “The Way You Look Tonight.” “Technically,” the note observes, “the boundary of Manhattan extends to the Brooklyn high-water mark which means the River Café dining room is technically in Manhattan while the kitchen – on the land side – is in Brooklyn.”  Would he change the name to The Manhattan Café on the River? He didn’t confide. 

1 Water Street, Brooklyn. 718 522 5200. Dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 11 pm. Friday and Saturday till midnight.


Photographs may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

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