The first hurtle in getting to Tom Colicchio’s new restaurant Riverpark is convincing your taxi driver that it exists. Ours had to be coaxed to drive through the imposing metal gates on First Avenue towards the river, perhaps unconvinced he wasn’t heading right into the maw of Bellevue. When we arrived, we found a brand new industrial park where the wind whipped in from the river. The metal and glass building lobby had all the warmth of the set of Gattica, and beyond that, the hangar-sized, spotlit restaurant itself wasn’t much cozier.
Alas, we were in for another episode of When Bad Spaces Happen to Good Chefs. Though we came in rooting for ‘wichcraft chef Sisha Ortuzar, who has plied us all these years with delicious sandwiches of roast pork with jalapenos and white anchovies with warm egg, the jarringly chilly space did not put us at ease. One of the reasons we chose this restaurant for dinner with out-of-town friends was for the view, though this is visible mainly from the bar area, and the Williamsburg waterfront isn’t all that impressive. But it’s good to have at least one geographical reference, or you might wonder, as D. said, “Are we in Dallas?”
If the staff at Riverpark is aware of the space’s shortcomings, they do everything they can to warm up the place with good service. The barman pours an excellent smoky Manhattan, in which the bourbon is infused with smoke and the maraschino cherry must have been marinating in chocolate liqueur, and throughout the dinner the level of service exceeded the price point. A sophisticated, 30-40-something crowd filled the place by 8:30 – it seems like locals are thrilled to finally have a fine dining option this far east.
We started with a half dozen Malpeque oysters ($15), cold, briny and sparkling fresh. An appetizer of mackerel escabeche ($15) indicated Ortuzar’s willingness to venture into under-appreciated fish territory, since many typical fish eaters might shy away from the fishier ones. Lightly marinated in a vinegary sauce, it arrived draped with prosciutto and set on a plank of crispy fried paella, a creative and successful Spanish trio of tastes.
Braised octopus with cockles, shishito peppers, lime and cilantro ($14) was a great mash-up of cultural influences from the Mediterranean to Japan and had us waxing nostalgic about fabulous shishito peppers from restaurants around the globe. Perfectly al dente cavatelli ($15) highlighted the earthy, rich autumnal flavors of smoked lamb, brightened up with mint and horseradish.
Lobster and artichoke salad ($18) had a bright, herbal flavor and came with generous chunks of lobster claw.
One of the difficulties here was deciding what to order, since so many of the dishes sounded so good. I wish I could have eaten all of the tender duck breast ($27) with pomegranate and black trumpet mushrooms, bathed in a caramelized onion sauce with a hint of smokiness.
But then I wouldn’t have had room for the thick, juicy pork chop ($24), served with a wonderfully apple-y compote of Brussels sprouts and parsnip purée. Hearty monkfish stood up to a fig sauce that had a similar caramelized smokiness we found with the duck – a wonderful mix of earth and sea flavors.
The only disappointment was the rack of lamb ($28), cut into chops, because here the mild flavors of the rest of the dish didn’t translate to the lamb itself, which tasted plain and underseasoned.
After all this good food, we had to wonder why Colicchio chose this particular space. The answer may lie in this Crain’s article, which explains that the biochemical company that owns the new building lured the star restauranteur east by footing the bill for the space. Certainly it is a good opportunity for chef Sisha Ortuzar to show off his skills beyond the realm of sandwiches – though there is a remarkable consistency between ‘wichcraft and Riverpark in the mix of local ingredients with exotic flavors and various cultural influences, experiments that sound unusual but taste great.
If we went back, it would be with a warning to our guests about the space, since Riverpark isn’t so much a way to show people the real New York, but to demonstrate how alarmingly interchangeable some new restaurants are getting with other cities, be it Dallas or Vegas. Not every restaurant has to be faux-farmhouse, but it should be inviting, however modern. Our guests suggested teleporting out of the restaurant when the meal was over, but this service isn’t available yet.
Maybe next year.