450 East 29th Street (b/n First Avenue and the East River), New York NY 10016 (map); 212-729-9790; riverparknyc.com
Service: Surprisingly polished for a brand-new restaurant
Setting: A comfortable but slightly chilly building lobby
Compare It To: Front Room of the Gramercy Tavern, Faustina
Must-Haves: Cheeseburger, lasagna, salt cod croquettes, fettucine, malt ice cream
Cost: Two courses run about $45 from the dinner menu, $30 from the bar menu
When you walk into the Alexandria, the new bio-tech center building on the banks of the East River, you are confronted by a sign: Riverpark, a Tom Colicchio restaurant. But if you go on to have a couple of very fine meals there—as we did—it is not all that likely that you will find Mr. Colicchio there.
According to chef-partner Sisha Ortuzar, although Colicchio is a partner in this endeavor, it's in the role of a restaurateur. Cooking-wise, Colicchio is quite busy with Colicchio & Sons and Tom: Tuesday Dinner. Ortuzar, who cooked alongside Colicchio for five years at Gramercy Tavern and Craft, and is also the managing partner at 'wichcraft, is running the kitchen, and he has brought in his own team—Riverpark chef de cuisine Bryan Hunt and a few other cooks came from the dearly departed Insieme. In other words, if Riverpark were an album, Colicchio would be an executive producer.
Now that we have all that straight, let's get to the food at Riverpark—which is mostly very good, if literally (and intentionally) all over the map. Riverpark, as is the fashion these days, is at least two restaurants in one, a more casual lounge/bar and a more formal (though not stuffy, and not too expensive) dining room. You want an excellent house-ground cheeseburger? They got that. How about a killer plate of "Burnt" Flour fettucine, made with cauliflower, Pecorino, and bread crumbs? Yup, they got that, too, along with a raw bar, jamon Iberico, well-chosen cheeses, and some killer fries for good measure.
Oh, yeah, there's also a fine grilled cheese sandwich, crudos and tartares, quite a few pastas (remember that Insieme connection)—all part of Ortuzar's plan to offer a little bit of everything for people who don't have a lot of immediate dining options in the rather isolated setting of 29th Street and the East River. When pressed for a pithy description of the menu at Riverpark, Ortuzar said it was American food with a New York point of view. When pressed on whether the restaurant lacked focus, he said with a giggle, "It is all over the place in a controlled manner."
And that's about right.
The room itself is a little chilly and clinically handsome, befitting the Alexandria Group's scientific bent and its desire to have Riverpark be a clubby center for the science community. You definitely know you are in the lobby of an office building, but the warm welcome you are greeted by at the door helps the overall vibe. You can order from both the bar menu and the regular menu at dinner, and we took full advantage of that opportunity.
It's hard to resist the bar snacks. Rosemary-flecked potato chips ($5) are served with a gorgonzola dip enlivened by Espellete pepper; salt cod croquettes ($8) came with a zesty lemon puree and a little parsley. French fries ($5) were properly cooked and salted and seriously delicious.
The aforementioned cheeseburger ($14) is killer—a straightforward, cheffy, super-juicy and beefy affair made out of house-ground round and hanger steak, served on a perfectly appropriate house-baked potato bun and alongside a jar of made-in-house bread-and-butter pickles. I have no idea where it ranks on the chef burger soapbox derby competition, but it is one fine burger.
Fried chicken ($17) is well-seasoned and obviously fried to order, with a crunchy exterior and remarkably moist white meat, but the breading is a little too thick and the skin a little too noticeable. The accompanying baked to order biscuits are a flaky, moist treat. And completing the comfort food trifecta at lunch is a fine grilled cheese and pickle sandwich ($13). The cheese is an oozy aged (but not ancient) New York state cheddar, and in every bite you'll also find a small chunk of cornichon, which Ortuzar says is a nod to English pub food.
Pastas and starters are all over the culinary map. The lasagna ($16) is neither traditionally Italian or Italian-American. It's a huge portion (it could probably feed three hungry adults adequately), and it's made with a traditional bolognese, a layer of bechamel, and tomato sauce. It couldn't be more different than what Marco Canora was doing at Insieme, but if the wind is blowing off the East River when you are eating at Riverpark, you will want to order it. (Or even if it's not that chilly.)
Pastas can take an amibitious, sharp left turn at Riverpark as well. The burnt fettucine with cauliflower, Pecorino Romano, and bread crumbs($12/18), made with flour that's been toasted in the oven, was a surprising delight—a combination of char and crunch and tanginess (chef de cuisine Bryan Hunt likened it to a coal-fired pizza crust) you don't find in many plates of pasta. The fettucine was a little soft, which was a problem in most of the pasta dishes we tried here (and a frequent issue with fresh pasta).
Buckwheat pappardelle ($14), though it had a lovely kasha-like flavor and came sauced with squash puree, coalesced into something less than the sum of its parts. But the spicy lamb ragu, an option on the $28 lunch prix fixe menu, was a much more successful and interesting dish because of the smoked olives and yogurt mixed into the sauce.
Hopping around the Mediterranean, the Mackerel Escabeche ($15), sandwiched between a crispy paella rice cake and a slice of Iberico Pata Negra, is clearly Ortuzar's nod to Spain. I loved the crunch of the rice cake, and you can't go wrong putting a piece of black-footed ham on anything, but I am not sure what these ingredients are doing in a single plate of food.
Fresh sturgeon ($27) is one of my favorite fish, and here Ortuzar pairs it with sunchokes, radicchio, fig, red wine, and pistachios; a simpler pork chop ($24) preparation was even better, a perfectly cooked medium-rare pork chop was accompanied by a brussels-sprout apple hash and silky parnsip puree.
And the winners among Vicky Nguyen's desserts? Perfect beignets ($10) with two dipping sauces, a lovely vanilla custard and a less successful cranberry compote. Cranberries were actually put to much better use with a smooth, tart cranberry sorbet.
The insanely creamy and full-flavored malt ice cream ($8 for three scoops) is one of the best ice creams I have tasted this year, but I am pre-disposed to love anything malt-flavored. The beer drinkers in our group admired Riverpark's beer ice cream. And a fine lemon meringue mini-pie came with an intriguing scoop of citrus mostarda ice cream.
Sisha Ortuzar is a fine cook in his own right, even with his talented mentor and partner Mr. Colicchio not by his side all that much. Riverpark's intentional lack of focus and global leanings may make it hard to describe the restaurant for an elevator pitch, but as Ortuzar himself put it, it also allows him to bastardize dishes (with impunity) and not feel guilty. You may not find yourself trekking out to 29th Street and the East River too often. But rest assured that once you're there, you'll be in very good hands indeed.