April 13, 1981 | Vintage Insatiable

Of Food And The River

        Euphoria is not the spirit for lucid judgments. So let me admit straightaway that my unabashed crush on New York City can't help but brighten the shimmer of an outing at the River Café. Still, even a jaded urbanophobe would be stirred by the diamond filigree of bridge and tower in moonlight, the noontime sun's hot tricks on glass and concrete…seen from Buzzy O'Keeffe's barge-café locked onto the Brooklyn toe of the pillared city.

        From Manhattan you curlicue off the Brooklyn Bridge past rickety wharfside ruins. (Come late April, you can ride the house launch from Wall Street.) Then a corner of striped awning, an aggravation of automobiles, flickering gas lamps, and a strange stereophonic space song from the bridge overhead -- unintentional steel guitar played by the traffic -- combine to build an extraordinary high. Surrender your coat to be hung on the plain pipe racks. Walk up the gangway. And there it is, across the channel: the Magic City. Are you quick to complain when table tie-ups keep you waiting half an hour at the bar? Not here, I promise, downriver from the piano (which symbolizes romantic dining for some folks, I know, and works here even for me). Sip a serious drink. Stand at the window bathed in the psychedelic mauve of the sunset. See the Statue of Liberty aglow like sugary marzipan.

        Most alert New Yorkers know all this. Perhaps, like me, you've heard celebration of the River Café's precinct and boos for the kitchen, reportedly Alka-Seltzerville-by-the-Sea. But recently the cuisinary tide was rumored to have turned. Murmurs of delight came from some hoity-toity mouths. Now that was news…something good to eat at the River Café. Off to investigate.

        Well, it's true. You can dine well, especially if you're in the mood for fish (ordered "rare" or "underdone," it will arrive at just-cooked perfection) and for dazzling chocolate desserts, and if you aren't rendered numb paying $100 or more to feed two. Brilliant pin lights -- stage spots on fresh flowers and strip mirrors -- distract from the barge's uncamouflaged clunkiness. And the staff is a pleasant motley of suave Gallic professionals and well-trained amateurs with seductive ingenuousness. Like Maggie, who urges us to open the red wine at once "because tannin is bad for you, but I guess practically everything is…even peanut butter."

        The menu itself states the theme: "a new American tradition"…patriotic celebration of home-harvested bounty (with only a few inconsistent lapses into French-menuese). There is Bellingham Bay smoked salmon from Washington. New Jersey quail. Fresh shrimp from Key West. Belon oysters from Maine, and Maine periwinkles. Napa Valley snails "supplied exclusively to our chef." Prawns from Hawaii. Brie from Illinois. The Great Lakes "golden caviar" is whitefish roe, of course, and delicious.

        The shrimp ($7.50) may have arrived from Key West unfrozen. Tonight they are a bit warm, a shade weary, but not overcooked, served with a bourbon-thinned mayonnaise and a hill of snow peas. Tiny Maine periwinkles ($5) are scattered in a nest of cold pasta with a crunch of "golden caviar." Thin green and white fettuccine are much tastier hot, with California snails in a heavenly cream. Ribbons of duck on a giant mound of sesame-scented noodles ($7.50) want more zest in their orange vinaigrette. Vodka sherbet ($6), topped with the crisp golden roe is bizarre enough to love or hate. Fruits of the Atlantic ($7.50) include Cape Cod oysters, our own little necks, and scallops in seviche, plus the Belons from Maine. A hearty seafood sausage ($7.50) molded of largish chunks (I found most of a tender lobster claw) is served in a pool of pimiento-flavored butter. There's a splendid tangle of wild mushrooms in a decent puff pastry boat ($8.50) afloat on distinctive dark sauce with islands of cream. The one flaw: a duxelles-produced sog in the boat's bottom.

        The greatest triumph in three visits with a dozen friends: the fish of the evening, red snapper ($17.50) poached to delicate perfection in a sublime consommé, garnished with crisp vegetable confetti, to be doused with a ginger-spiked hollandaise. Lightly crumbed pompano is a pleasant leek sauce is arranged in a perpendicular sandwich reminiscent of bodies in a swing-club commercial on Midnight-Blue; it's just a tick overdone. Swordfish of the day ($18.50) in a delicious red-wine sauce is "rare," as requested, and somewhat mealy. And there is lamb -- so rare it is almost cool, but full of flavor -- in a tarragon-flecked sauce with a trio of vegetable purées. Veal mignonettes served with green and white pasta in beurre fondue are rare too, perhaps in a bow to my taste. (I am not able to be anonymous, for Gaby, an exile from Frank Valenza's Palace, is in attendance here.) The carrots ($3) are buttery but not quite cooked, the string beans perfect. But potatoes layered with apples in garlicky cream are cooked into a mush -- admittedly an exquisite mush. Illinois's Brie will not stampede France's cheesemakers to suicide. The creamy American snow cheese, though, can stand on its own.

        Except for an insipid strawberry shortcake, a clumsy orange tart, and an unripe, undercooked pear in a too sweet pastry tulip (a beauty to look at), the desserts are an exultation. The gateau marjolaine is no relation to Fernand Point's aristocratic, sense-reeling creation, but blissfully marries buttercream and meringue with a dense chocolate filling. Rich chocolate terrine has a heart of white chocolate and is framed with ladyfingers in a pool of crème anglaise. Dense ovals of chocolate marquise ride a sea of pistachio cream. There is a fine kiwi clafouti and a buttery hot apple confection on crisp thin crust.

        Some of this is a bit too fussy. Of course, what is fussy in the hands of a mere craftsman might become brilliant by the alchemy of genius. But this is not Lutèce, nor Le Plaisir, nor Dodin-Bouffant. It is a kitchen of journeyman rank with longings for greatness. Larry Forgione (from the Culinary Institute via the Connaught and Regine's) is a skillful, growing chef, and his boss, Buzzy O'Keeffe, has pride and ego at stake. A week ago Forgione took off for California to scout new food sources…to taste a reportedly glorious ice cream…to sample wine. Gleaning the best of America's produce is Buzzy's passion. Most Florida strawberries are shipped unripe; he insists that his ripen on the vine. But even ripe, these strawberries are dull, so why bother? All those tiny cubes of tomato -- organic or no -- garnishing the chef's presentations are as tasteless as cotton. It takes a squeeze of lemon or a dash of vinegar, a pinch of sugar, a dab of tomato paste to create tomato taste in winter, and unripe pears are just about as thrilling as plywood. And what the River café needs in someone with great taste to come in and edit the sauces. Almost all of them lack intensity. They need mustard, a splash of vinegar, some saffron or ginger.

        We are brunching at two -- breaking the fast with rum and pineapple juice as the sun warms earlobes already flushed from the room's erotic buzz. Is everyone here in love? Couples are crooning and purring and nuzzling. The sun edges the World Trade Center in silver streaks; feisty red tugs give barges a swift heave-ho. THIS IS NOT AN EXIT, says the sign on a door, suggesting it's the way to a long drink. Were warm croissants ever more buttery? Impossible! Banana bread is good too. And so are thin, silken curls of smoked ham with ripe melon and avocado. In the sun-and-rum high I can forget the insipid terrine of asparagus and smoked trout. So what if the quail-in-croissant sandwich is a little bit soggy and the sauce cries for mustard of vinegar? The poached eggs Maintenon are perfect, the hollandaise properly piquant. So is the poached egg on the aristocratic but totally tasteless roast beef hash -- 25 cubes of unseasoned beef to one sliver of potato. Never mind. A yacht zigs crazily by. The sun blazes. If there is any rival for the luxurious indolence of breakfast in bed…it must be brunch at the River Café.

        "You could serve sawdust here," view-smitten customers tell O'Keeffe. Probably he could. But Buzzy O'Keeffe is too caught up with his celebration of America. "My mother is a wonderful cook, and the first restaurant kitchen I was ever in was Le Pavillon. I think America is ready for another taste explosion. American chefs are the future. I tell my staff, 'Make believe the windows are painted black.'" So the kitchen stretches. The food is good now, but it could be better. I love O'Keeffe's benevolent boosterism, so I'm hoping he'll try the daredevil leap.

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