Restaurant review: The River Café, NYC, 1 Michelin Star
Location is everything in New York City and on the topic of location, few can match The River Café! The café, which is really a restaurant – duh, is located in Brooklyn Bridge Park, a wonderful mix of old warehouses, promenades and little green areas. It’s also located RIGHT on the waterfront and right below the Brooklyn Bridge – on the Brooklyn side, of course, offering diners and unparalleled view of the Manhattan Skyline.
Location is everything for some top restaurants. And in terms of location, it’s hard to beat the River Café
From the outside, though, the place doesn’t look like much. When we first arrived, we were only alerted to the location of the restaurant by a small, blue sign which showed us the way through a pretty little outside garden/patio down the driveway and past a bend where we were greeted by the valet who, despite temperatures hovering around 30 degrees centigrade, was impeccably dressed in dark pants, buttoned up pressed shirt, vest, and a driver’s cap. Heading on, we were guided through a set of double doors where we were greeted by a pair of young women who were every bit as gorgeous as they were well-dressed. They quickly and discretely confirmed our reservations (it really was okay, we really *were* allowed to be there!), and showed us onwards into the main dining room.
And that’s where things started to get impressive! In all its simplicity, The River Café consists of a large, oblong dining room with much of the floor space taken up by large, round, well-set tables set in many different levels so that even the tables in the back of the room had a great view through the large panoramic window which made up the front of the dining room. And what of the view? Well, for my money, it comes close to the second best view in all of New York City. Empire State Building is on a completely different level, but sitting on the water, under the bridge, looking at the Manhattan skyline.. Now there’s a sight! Even when the bridge is undergoing renovations as it was on the day of our visit.
It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but inside.. Oh wow!
I barely had time to suck in air and swallow hard at the view before another incredibly gorgeous women ticked us off in her little black book and gestured for the head waiter to show us our table.. A few words may be in order about the waiters at The River Café. They’re all male and they are without a doubt the most well-dressed males I’ve seen over the course of my lifetime: bow ties, freshly pressed shirts, smokings, cufflinks, shoes probably more expensive than my entire outfit and a proud posture to match! And there were more than a handful of them just to take care of our party of three!
Anyway, the head waiter. A friendly, warm, obviously French gentleman in his 50’s arrived and lead us away from the pretty little lady who whispered a discrete “enjoy your lunch” as we were led to our table at the center of the room right by the window and, consequently, the water. Apparently booking well in advance and making sure to state that you’ve made the trip all the way from Denmark had its advantages. Holy FUDGE what a view for our meal!
As we were shown to our table, our small army of waiters jumped into full effect. One quickly cleared away an extra plate from the four people table while another pulled out the extra chair, you know, so the girls would have something to place their handbags on. A third waiter politely pulled out a chair for Emelie to sit down on while Zascha and I are seen to our seats by the head waiter. Here I apparently screwed up as I was apparently supposed to mimic the moves of one of the waiters and pull out the chair for Zascha. I thought that was the job of the head waiter, he in turn thought Zascha and I were married, obviously leaving the job to me. Sorry.
Not at all seemingly bothered by my display of bad manners, the head waiter smiled and politely asked “Would Monsieur like to see our wine list?” I nodded and he smiled and nodded in return, quickly disappearing around fifth waiter who had now magically appeared to ask which kind of water we’d like with our meal. Not being used to taking picks between various imported mineral waters, I left the decision to the girls while I focus on the wine list, nay wine book, nay wine bible handed to me by the head waiter.
Thick, heavy and filled with everything my wine geek heart desired (and more), the list contained everything from reasonably priced wines by the glass to the top players of Burgundy ranging all the way from the fabled whites from Montrachet (yes, THE Montrachet) to the ridiculously luxurious reds from Domaine de La Romanée Conti, available to those who had an extra $10,000 or so to spare. I for one considered for a moment splurging out and just never returning home, but luckily I’m interrupted by the arrival of our imported mineral water served in Burgundy glassware and a polite call for meal orders.
As far as starters were concerned, there was no consensus around the table. Emelie went for warm goat’s cheese with red beets while Zascha went for cold smoked Scottish salmon with cucumber/mint raijta. Me, I saw no reason not to go for the tuna tartare with avocado, cucumber and wasabi mayonnaise. In the main course department, we all agreed, though: Lobster & Lobster! “Lobster for everybody, huh,” the head waiter asked with a smile, “well, everybody does love our lobster! Has Monsieur decided on a wine?”
Champagne, a great view, beautiful company and great food.. What more could a boy want?
Monsieur had in fact decided on a wine and he gladly placed an order for a bottle of Champagne Pol Roger, an order which seemed to more than please our French head waiter who nodded profusely while muttering “excellent choice” before dashing off again with our orders. He returned some 15 minutes later (the wine list did warn me of this wait, the wine needed tempering, after all) with a bottle that he proudly displayed before opening it with a not so discrete French pop (one of very few mistakes committed during service), allowing me a sniff and a taste before pouring a couple of generous glasses into the flutes which had been procured by our third, fifth or seventh waiter – I forget. As he busied himself doing that, I quickly and discretely snagged the cork, wire cage and all, and pocketed it. I figured I was allowed a little souvenir. We then clinked our glasses and sipped the always wonderfully crisp, acidic and complex experience that is Pol Roger, this time with the added bonus of a Michelin-starred environment and a view of the New York City skyline.
One could easily just zone out for a while and get lost in thought.. But then, out of the blue, our food arrived, ushered in by an army of waiters. And it looked good, my God did it look good. Large plates of little culinary works of art are carefully placed before us. It was beautiful. So beautiful, actually, that we pretty much all just sat there for a while saying “this is beautiful, dare I even eat it?” My tuna tartare, for example, is a beautiful pressed circle of tuna placed on top of a bit of flavorful oil, topped with perfectly ripe, perfectly cut slices of avocado wrapped around julienned cucumber. Simple, really, but so masterfully done.
Tuna tartare – River Café style! As stunningly pretty as it was tasty
After some consideration and with no uncertain amount of intimidation, I took a bite of my starter.. The taste of fresh, creamy, soft tuna exploded in my mouth. This wasn’t sushi grade tuna, this was Michelin-starred sushi grade tuna! Velvety, fresh, sweet, intense.. And it wasn’t till the first bite that the sheer genius of the dish dawned on me: the tuna tartare had not been evenly salted. Instead it had, very carefully I assume, been mixed with large flakes of sea salt (Maldon, I presume). The salt added a bit of uneven crunch to the dish and little flavor bursts of salt as a contrast to the fatty tuna. Well played! Also, as it turned out after the first bite. Someone had been a naughty monkey and snuck a generous serving of tobiko (flying fish roe) between the tuna and the avocado on top. This, really, wasn’t necessary, but being the polite guest that I am, I’ve never been one to complain about the addition of roe to my dishes.
I can only assume that the girls were as pleased with their dishes as I was with mine. There certaily lay an aura of silence around the table as our starters were consumed and there wasn’t the usual sharing of bites going on. We were seemingly too obsessed with our plates to partake in our usual ritual of meal sharing.
Allow me at this point to tell you a little secret about The River Café (and other Michelin-starred restaurants): They’re watching you! But not in a bad, creepy kinda way. Nay, rather in a good, polite kinda way. All throughout or meal, close detail was paid to us, our eating and our meal. Waiters were on standby ready to top up our glasses with more Champagne, all while making sure the bottle would last us through the meal. As soon as our cutlery hit our empty plates after the first dish, a little army went into effect and cleared the table in seconds while another little army arrived with our main dishes. Oh yes, they’re watching you at The River Café, but in a good kinda way.
Lobster and lobster, part I: The lobster
But back to the main courses. In front of us, we found three beautiful renditions of one of the River Café’s signature dishes: “lobster & lobster”; lobster cooked two ways. One prepared classically, one not so classically, one very French, one very American. In front of us were large plates on the left of which were a bowl containing a perfectly poached lobster tail glistening with saffron infused melted butter. The lobster tail was placed on a bed of chick peas also drenched in butter, saffron and whatever juices the lobster had surrendered. On top of the lobster tail were some beautifully blanched sugar snap peas, green beans and pretty little flowers. Gorgeous. To the right of this classic preparation of lobster lay a sandwich consisting of buttered toast literally stuffed with lobster claw meat, plenty of rich, melted cheese, black truffles and other goodness. In true American fashion, it had been cut on the diagonal, layered and stuck together using toothpicks. Cheeky, decadent and almost blasphemous. Yet with a touch of class to it. Bold but, once again, beautiful.
Lobster and lobster, part II: the lobster!
As for the taste, it was everything you could hope for and more. Try as I might, I couldn’t find one single bad thing to say about this dish. And believe me, I tried! The lobster was perfectly poached, the greens had the bite and crunch they needed while still being cooked to perfect. Even the chickpeas.. Well, as one of my beautiful co-diners put it, “even those they make an art of cooking!” – you really wouldn’t think there was a right or a wrong way to cook chickpeas until you’ve had chickpeas at The River Café. That being said, my favorite part of the meal was the sandwich. I’m not really too big of a fan of the untainted taste of most shellfish, even lobster, so I was happy to have a bit of cheese, butter and, last but not least, truffle to keep the shellfish company. It just all worked together so perfectly. If I’m to say one thing, though, it was that it was all a bit rich and heavy. Actually, it turned out to be too rich and heavy, and more than any one of us could eat. Even I had to leave a bit of my lobster uneaten, and I eat *a lot*! Seriously! But that’s alright. I, being used to Danish restaurant prices, was amazed that you for the neat sum of $30 could get more lobster at Michelin level than anyone could possibly eat. $30 for an entire lobster cooked to perfection, with artisan cheese AND truffles? Add to that the location, the army of waiters, kitchen staff and what have you and I started wondering how on earth they turned a profit for lunch service.. But then again, I think too much and who was I to complain?
The perfect ending to a wonderful experience: Oh so pretty little petit fours
Not being able to finish our mains sadly also meant that we had to skip dessert, awesome as they looked. But really, awesome as the quality was, the servings were ridiculously huge and could have easily been made smaller if dessert was to be fitted in as well. So we politely passed much to the dismay of our waiters who, however, wasted no time in discretely bringing over the check along with a silver tray (nothing less, nothing more) of gorgeous, little house made petit fours. Our grand total was just under $300 which included three starters, three lobsters, a bottle of imported mineral water, a bottle of Champagne Pol Roger, tax, tips and whatever the hell else you could imagine. That may sound like a lot, but really, to a foodie from rural Denmark used to Danish restaurant prices, it seemed like a bargain. Especially when considering the whole dining experience of eating lobster and drinking Champagne on the waterfront under the Brooklyn Bridge which, in itself, is priceless!
Even the poor lighting can’t disguise the fact that this was one happy camper!
To sum up? Or not to sum up? That is the question! Need one sum up? I’ll let every superlative above speak for itself and award The River Café a perfect six out of six starts for an unforgettable first Michelin Star dining experience! Thank you!