Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Training Ground New York City Entry #36

One of the crises that every great restaurant must eventually face is what to do when the chef who "made" the restaurant leaves the kitchen. Can the restaurant continue or is it time to close up shop? Can one imagine Charlie Trotter's without CT, or Daniel sans Daniel, or Frontera Grill absent Rick Bayless. However, of course, restaurants do continue and even thrive despite a new toque. In Chicago (Evanston, actually) Trio thrived under Rick Tramonto, Shawn McClain, and Grant Achatz, until finally after Achatz's departure, owner Henry Adaniya decided to downscale the restaurant's culinary ambitions under Dale Levitski, marking the transition through a name change to Trio Atelier. In New York Maguy LeCoze's Le Bernardin purrs along nicely with Eric Ripert now at the helm. What connects the two establishments is the presence of a strong owner.

Perhaps the New York restaurant that has triumphed despite (or because of) kitchen turnover is Buzzy O'Keeffe's River Café, a restaurant that had a profound effect in its brave attempt to civilize the sorry docks beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, sandwiched between Brooklyn Heights and the white elephant Dumbo. While the spectacular view doesn't hurt (although the battle to claim the right table surely does), the parade of A-list chefs is impressive, including the pioneer Larry Forgione, Charlie Palmer, David Burke, Rick Laakonen, and now Brad Steelman. Many restaurants rest on their scenic haunches, but RC hopes for something more, and frequently achieves it.

At a recent dinner, I ordered the three course prix fixe menu, and despite a table as far from the marine action as possible (although with the prominent window no one is too far from the Lower Manhattan vista), I was well satisfied. Perhaps the food lacks the elegance of a Michelin three star restaurant, but the lack of a star reveals a certain scorn to the "boroughs." (Despite what the red guide suggests, you can ask for a window table, but unless you are known to the house, it is first come, first served).

The amuse was a silky yet hearty squash soup with apple brandy and pumpkin seeds. It set the tone for a defiantly seasonal menu, and was sophisticated enough that its simplicity added to its charm. The brandy cut the heaviness of the cream and squash, lightening the taste.

My appetizer was "Rabbit and Ravioli" Pancetta-Wrapped Loin of Rabbit served on a (Brooklyn) Ricotta-filled ravioli with garden pea puree and pan juices. The pea puree didn't have a strong enough presence to match the more dominant tastes, but the rabbit was so moist and juicy that it tasted like a cross between pork and sausage. The ravioli was properly cooked and enriched by the pan juices.

As an entree, I selected Millbrook Venison Loin with Green Peppercorns, Chestnut spaetzle, root vegetables, and wild lingonberry pan sauce. Again this was a tribute to November, perhaps the most autumnal dish of any I have had in Gotham. I loved the crispy, nutty spaetzle and felt that the root vegetables were sweetened and made Nordic with strains of lingonberry. Chef Steelman has no fear of undercooking meat. I was not asked how I wanted the venison served - I got it rare: perfect. A dish to prepare us for the long winter ahead.

Dessert was a Blueberry Almond tart with warm blueberries and caramel glazed almonds, lemon panna cotta, and blueberry sorbet. The presentation - a glass cone of panna cotta, a sphere of dark purple sherbert, and a small boat of berries and almonds - was impressive. Nothing was really wrong, if not quite spectacular. The tart had a granola-like texture, and the panna cotta, well-made, was plain, if pure. The sorbet was rich, dense berry-flavor, and a buoyant palate cleanser, if perhaps late in the meal.

In sum, the meal surpassed my expectations for a restaurant that is often remembered fondly for its history and for its ambiance. Yet, there must be something in the river air or in the layers of culinary history that keeps working its charm, inspiring whatever chefs are hired to do waterfront duty. For this, New Yorkers, facing chilling travel, give thanks.

The River Cafe
1 Water Street
Brooklyn (Below Brooklyn Bridge)
718-522-5200

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