The first sign that the newest Tom Colicchio restaurant in New York City is going to be a little different pops up the moment we step out of the cab at 29th and First.
The desolate street is so brightly lit it feels like we've dropped into an oddly quiet lull in a tense Cold War movie. It is discombobulating, to be sure — especially when we spy a sentry eying us suspiciously. He points, indicating that we should just keep walking down the road. And soon enough, signs of life appear when another uniformed guard toddles out of a tall metal building. The man is frantic, waving his hands and saying over and over, "NO pictures allowed."
This is a science park, after all, and Alexandria Building, the structure we've been snapping, houses a host of biotech tenants such as ImClone, the subsidiary of pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly that handles cancer research. The tenseness and growing paranoia persist until you walk across the stark silver lobby and come upon the warm glow of a sign that says "Riverpark."
And that's when you start to feel relieved. You're in the right place after all. Your camera hasn't been ripped from your hands and stomped on. Scully and Mulder haven't appeared. (Not that Mulder would be an unwelcome presence.) You've not been grabbed, shoved into a black sedan and spirited away.
You step into the restaurant and quintessential Colicchio starts to take over…
Although the restaurant has only been open for a few days at the time of our visit, and although its location is not exactly a draw for diners, Riverpark is packed the moment we walk in.
The crowd is older, more sedate, than the ones that frequent the "Top Chef" judge's other restaurants like Colicchio & Sons in the still somewhat fashionable Meatpacking District and, of course, Craft. But the decor is reminiscent of his other restaurants — shades of Craft permeate the dining room's modern decor.
There is outdoor seating — but its view isn't perfect. Sure, you get a great view of the East River but you also have to deal with the noise and flashing lights of cars on the FDR.
Chef Sisha Ortuzar (of ’wichcraft), whom Colicchio enlisted to helm the kitchen, has said that he has wanted to create a casual restaurant with a menu that's American from a New York point of view, or “the food I like to eat.”
And his menu is comforting, to be sure — there is little that is unfamiliar. Everything is comfortably well within the known — but with little twists.
We begin with cocktails — or rather, try to begin with cocktails. Granted, this is the restaurant's first week of service but we have to wait an inexcusably long time before our cocktails arrive — so long, in fact, that our waitress feels the need to apologize profusely.
What we get is a mixed bag — the Blackwell's Cove ($12; pictured below), a blend of rum, cointreau, pineapple, lime and house-made orgeat (a sweet syrup made flavored with almonds, sugar and orange-flower or rose water), which the waitress highly recommended, packed some punch and was a zingy, refreshing start to the meal. The Scarlet Rose ($11), combining prosecco with pomegranate and rose flower water, on the other hand, was disappointingly bland.
To whet our appetites, we start by splitting the steak and sea urchin tartare ($14) from the raw bar. The dish is a knockout — the saltiness of the sea urchin was a lovely foil for the light meatiness of the beef. Combined with beautifully crisp, buttery hunks of bread and the tiniest slivers of jalapenos, each bite of the tartare was a delight.
Our appetizers were a little less impressive overall — the lobster in the lobster and artichoke salad with orange, tarragon and coriander ($18) was fresh and perfectly done. But the dish was a little skimpy on the artichokes.
We had had high hopes for the braised octopus with cockles, shisito peppers, lime and cilantro ($14). But while the octopus was tasty and very nicely braised, the rest of the dish was a little bland.
There was one star among the appetizers, however: the squab mole with grits and pistachios ($15). The squab was juicy, tender, delicious and the mole, just divine. Deep, earthy, chocolatey and flecked with chunks of pistachios, this mole was amazing — we just could not get enough of it.
I knew I was in trouble once we passed this plate around the table. Sure enough, the moment my squab reached my friend Joe (who has a lovely cookbook coming out in March, "Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking For One"), it stopped right there.
And that was the last I saw of it.
We fared better on the entrees — the $24 pork chop was an impressive piece of meat that certainly looked worth the money. It was nicely done — no complaints there. We'd been excited to see what the brussels sprout-apple "hash" listed as its accompaniment would be like — but the little flecks of leaves and apple cubes scattered about the plate didn't quite feel like a "hash" to us. A deconstructed salad, perhaps, on a bed of creamy parsnip puree.
The cavatelli with smoked lamb, mint and horseradish ($15 as an appetizer; $23 as an entree) was perfectly decent. But the dish that disappeared the quickest was the duck breast with celery, pomegranate and black trumpet mushrooms ($27). The duck was incredibly flavorful, just bursting with umami.
You'd think we'd be stuffed at this point. But the beignets ($10) were calling. (Apologies for the blurry picture — my hands were trembling, trying to get a quick shot so we could eat them before they cooled.)
What can I say about beignets — I've rarely met one I didn't love and these were no exception. Airy and light, these beignets were terrific on their own or dipped in rum chocolate sauce or vanilla custard.
The caramel pot de creme with roasted apples and rosemary shortbread ($11) was a pleasant combination.
But just when we thought nothing could top the beignets we'd just had, the chocolate tart topped with chocolate sorbet swimming in a pool of salted caramel ($11) knocked us for a loop.
Whatever chocolate the kitchen uses for this — it's top shelf stuff. Its flavor is intense and will give you and instant high — coupled with the salted caramel and flecks of salt, this tart was truly memorable.
For its first week, Riverpark was doing OK. Sure, there was some unevenness, which is to be expected. In food, it's forgivable — the kitchen may still be working out its kinks, after all. But in service? Less so.
The incredibly long wait for cocktails was OK but combined with other little details, it seemed indicative of a larger problem that needs to be fixed. There was the even longer wait for our wine to appear and then the waitress fumbling for so long while trying to open the bottle that we were seconds away from offering to do it ourselves. (This ended when she suddenly broke the cork.) And one does expect in a restaurant of this stature — casual or not — that a table is set with napkins; one should not have to request them.
The food, however, manages to smooth some of this over. And on your way out, there is another little treat. "Instead of matches," our hostess tells us, "we have seeds."
Handing us tiny envelopes of thyme and rosemary seeds, she merrily sends us on.
Riverpark, 450 E. 29th Street, 212.729.9790; www.riverparknyc.com