The first restaurant I planned to check out upon returning to New York a few weeks ago was Tom Colicchio’s Riverpark. Riverpark restaurant is affiliated with Riverpark Farm, an urban farm located on the stalled building site of the Alexandria Life Sciences Center at 29th Street and the East River, right next to Bellevue Hospital. The farm was set up by Sisha Ortúzar, former sous-chef for Colicchio at Gramercy Tavern (one of my all time New York faves) and co-founder of ‘wichcraft, a lunch staple for me in the food wasteland that is midtown Manhattan. Sisha is also the chef and partner of Riverpark restaurant.
The thing that caught my eye at first about Riverpark, in the TastingTable coverage I read, was the urban farm aspect, because urban farms are way cool and I’m really excited about seeing more and more of them around New York. Speaking of which – a college friend of mine is involved in a super cool urban farm project in Brooklyn called Brooklyn Grange Farm which is currently a finalist in the BBC World Challenge and thus a candidate to receive $20,000. You can vote for them on the World Challenge website.
I imagine that the best and coolest way to experience Riverpark is at the chef’s table that is located actually in the farm. It seats 12 and is available for private bookings only, for which Sisha will create a four-course meal and give you a tour plus a goody bag for each guest with produce grown on site. But if that price tag (about $150 per person) is too steep, in the meantime you can enjoy the food in the regular restaurant setting, which is what we did.
My dining companion for the evening was Steph Kurz (check out her blog rabbitsnacks) and all the photos are courtesy of her and her superior iPhone 4, plus some serious photoshop skills since the restaurant was pretty dark.
On the night we visited, purely by coincidence, Riverpark was celebrating its first birthday. (The restaurant, that is. The farm has only been up and running for the past few months.) This meant that every diner got a free glass of champagne to start the meal, always a good way to begin.
The food was fantastic – full report below – and as per above the concept is cool, but where Riverpark falls down is the ambiance. Housed in the Alexandria Center itself, walking in you feel like you’ve gone back to college and are perhaps about to enter the cafeteria. Except obviously when you round the corner it’s an upscale restaurant with sweeping views of the East River. To go to the bathroom, you have to exit the restaurant space and go back into the sterile lobby to reach lavatories that, again, feel like university. The juxtaposition is jarring.
To me, it seemed that they had really missed a trick not carrying through the farm-to-table aesthetic to the restaurant. What is the point of affiliating a restaurant with an urban farm (as per above, the epitome of cool) and designing it to be a conventional, conservative dining room?
Now that I know the restaurant preceded the farm, this makes more sense, but then I have the question why the restaurant is where it is at all. But for the urban farm, I don’t really understand why one would choose to house a restaurant in the Alexandria center next to Bellevue hospital in Kips Bay.
At any rate, as I said, the food was outstanding, so the restaurant was largely saved.
We started with two raw fish dishes – avocado and hamachi salad with pickled red onion, radish and chiles. It packed a punch and came with almost an entire avocado.
We paired this with the salmon tartare, served with a white gazpacho, yuzu, cucumber and salmon roe. I normally steer clear of fish tartare (I almost never want to see a tuna version on a menu again) simply because it has been done, over and over, and can we please move on? But the gazpacho and yuzu intrigued me, and I was impressed with the result, whose citrus and tomato notes added a nice tang to the fish.
Next Stephanie had the mushroom consommé. The plate arrived with a beautiful mound of fresh mushrooms and frisée, over which the broth was poured. Rich and flavorful, it was a sophisticated, subtle dish.
For my main course I chose the cavatelli with braissed lamb and mint. Pure comfort food, it was hearty and hit the spot. Even Stephanie, a vegetarian for animal welfare reasons, felt compelled to have a bite.
Despite being rather full (are you noticing a trend here?) we decided to share the sheep’s milk yogurt cheesecake which had the added bonus of being the only type of dairy Stephanie can eat. It came with roasted figs and fresh figs, and oh my lord it was good. Super creamy with a zing from the yogurt and sheep, it was sort of a cross between a dessert and cheese course.
On balance, a successful meal, though probably not a restaurant I will be frequenting again soon. I will, however, put their outdoor terrace on my list of places to check out next summer, and keep tabs on the farm part of the equation.
Location: 450 E 29th Street, New York, NY 10016
Subway: 6 at 28th Street and Park Avenue
Prices: $70 per person, including food, 2 glasses of wine and tip