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The restaurant serves five succulent red wines by the glass.

River Deep, River High

by Gael Greene | Noah Fecks | Manhattan magazine | April 2, 2014

Cool New Yorkers tended to take The River Café for granted, even back when cool meant chilly and hip meant cool. A few incurable romantics, competing with well-heeled tourists, might seek a table to pop the question or celebrate a marital milestone with that magical view of the diamond filigree of bridge and towers across the pulsing harbor.

I’d not thought of the Brooklyn cafe myself in years, till Sandy’s fierce surge trashed it and nearly tore the barge loose from its mooring at the toe of Brooklyn under the Bridge. Images of the devastation and reports of owner Buzzy O’Keeffe’s slow-moving, perfectionist resurrection inspired my determination to revisit a spot I’d loved when it and I were green.

I found myself at a waterside table the night after it finally reopened in February. In a far corner, with tables sparsely occupied, I was instantly seduced by the view, by the show-off sparkle of the unfinished One World Trade Center, by the fantasy that we were the only two people in the house. Very sexy. A few fits and blips scarcely registered.

Now I’m back with friends on a Saturday night. What used to be a fantastical stage set at the end of desolate wharfside ruins is now a fantastical stage set in the new essential Brooklyn. We pass bustling restaurants and million-dollar condos before spying the strings of lights in the distance, marking the cobbled drive. It’s spring inside, with a garden of white blossoms planted on concrete by the cafe’s own florist. Behind the bar, the piano swoons with hit-parade romance. Am I offended? Not really. It goes with the illusion.

The room looks packed, but there’s a small round next to the glass-wrapped view that’s just been vacated. Quickly we’re caught up in the blinking downtown towers, Ms. Liberty in the distance, a passing dinner cruise that seems headed for the Bronx. I see I’m still crazy moved by the skyline. Waiters and captains race, barely avoiding collision in the narrow aisle, but facing our own reflection in the glass wraps us in
a cocoon.

There was a moment some years ago when the menu looked like an American gazetteer—food for satire. It’s more dignified now. Portions are remarkably generous.

Chef Brad Steelman’s approach may involve modern technology and flavor complexity, but most of what we’re eating tonight seems more straightforward than I remember. Real food, almost always exquisitely cooked.

The rich shrimp bisque and a delicately cooked little shrimp wrapped in flutters of filo as the amuse set off murmurs of surprise approval. More one-bite texture and flavor thrills come with Three Shells, a gift appetizer from the kitchen. Crushed tomato on raw Taylor Bay scallops and Kumamoto oysters with cucumber and a Champagne mignonette are so marvelous, I write off the odd taste of the abalone. A pair of outsize, wild, heads-on shrimp are so carefully cooked too, that the veal Oscar-inspired dress of crabmeat with white asparagus and maltaise sauce (a hollandaise with blood orange) doesn’t seem overdone. Indeed, it comes together as if it were ordained. Lobster and orange, an inspired liaison. The octopus is a careful balance of caramelized and tender, but not gooey.

My friend Danny’s wagyu beef tartare does indeed get mixed at the table, as promised on the menu. It’s not done tableside—there isn’t room in the sliver of an aisle for those theatrics. Rather, our captain reaches around Danny himself, incorporating chopped capers, cognac gelée, mustard, chives, shallot brunoise and a quail egg right under his nose, leaving behind extra salt in a speckled quail egg. Yes, that rite does feel overly intimate, but the super-rich tartare is a triumph even so.

I wish the house served the amuse after, not while taking our order, so we didn’t have to eat it with menus on our laps. I got so distracted I forgot to order my fish “rare-ish.” The black sea bass cooked in lobster brown butter with artichoke ravioli lined up on top would please most folks, but not those who like their fish less cooked. Danny’s buxom duck breast is a magnificent rare steak with crisp little sweet potato spaetzle and sweet-and-sour red cabbage alongside. Classic with duck—real food, as I said.

Buzzy makes the rounds, dodging waiters and late arrivals, greeting friends, explaining to us he’s still upgrading and reworking and we shouldn’t think (i.e., write) that the renaissance of The River Café is complete. My friend Nicole interrupts her love affair with the chocolate souffle to share my cheese course—a world-class presentation with exceptional condiments, and enough for three. Then all of us help Danny demolish the Brooklyn Bridge (in chocolate), not that he needs help.

Donning coats in the lobby, we can hear the ’70s disco coming from a birthday celebration in the adjacent party room. I’m not sure that proves you can go home again. Or that you can’t. We leave Buzzy fixated on refining his dreamboat for the next two or three decades, or at least till he finds another waterside project that fires his obsessive attention.

The River Café
1 Water St., Brooklyn, 718.522.5200

Lunch: Mon.-Sun., noon-3pm
Dinner: Mon.-Sun., 5:30pm-midnight