Thursday, March 31, 2011

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Riverpark, New York City

Celebrity toque and Top Chef King of Snark Tom Colicchio quietly opened RIVERPARK, a restaurant situated on an underused stretch of the East River in Murray Hill, this past autumn. And over the course of these recent cool-into-cold months of Manhattan's fall and winter seasons, Riverpark has gained a foothold in the city's dining scene. 

Admittedly, I've always found office buildings and corporate structures to be strange settings for restaurants (which probably accounts for my propensity to head downtown to eat). The Alexandria Center is no different, except its sterile, shiny newness is in stark contrast to the surrounding old buildings and to the warmth of Riverpark once you...get past the security guards at the Center's front desk, walk down the corridor, and step inside the actual restaurant. It's decorated in handsome tones of copper, limestone, and dark blue, and its position overlooking the East River makes the interior feel modern nautical, and not necessarily very New York-y: the day these photos were shot was a damp, gray afternoon that reminded me of eating on the Thames rather than dining in Manhattan. 
Regardless, the bar is a nice place to have elegant drinks and nibbles or raw bar selections (or a full dinner) after work -- something the nabe has long been lacking. And as for the dining room itself (divided into 2 areas: one cozy interior, and one by the floor-to-ceiling glass windows), these are lovely spots for lunch or dinner, where one can enjoy a reliably good meal, professionally executed, with little fanfare and warm service. Put succinctly: Riverpark is the perfect place to come with someone you like, someone with whom you'd like to enjoy a conversation. Nothing about the place overwhelms or takes the focus off of your company, and you don't have to worry about the food disappointing. Many a spot has become an institution in this town for accomplishing less.

Now, to the food: not overly pricey (particularly for a Colicchio joint), not terribly exciting, but reliably delicious. Chef de Cuisine Sisha Ortuzar exhibits his skill honed in Colicchio's kitchens, along with his facility with market-fresh ingredients and Euro-American food with influence from The Americas (Ortuzar is Chilean). So, we can kick off our meal with a decadent starter of duck liver pate' with grilled toast and a cherry compote, or go the lighter route with a salad of field greens and lightly pickled vegetables -- or find the middle ground with a beef carpaccio with arugula and shaved parmigiano.

For seconds, try the Arctic char (replaced by branzino in the photo) with fingerling potatoes, pickled red onion, capers, and a salsa verde. The pork scaloppine with farro and wilted spinach was also delicious -- though no longer on the menu -- and the lunch item of the fried chicken sandwich with homemade potato chips (available as a bar snack) was a tasty plate of food. The pastas, like the squid ink chitarra, are well-balanced, and other meatier second dishes are accomplished as well.
Desserts tend towards updated classics-with-a-twist, as in the cinnamon panna cotta with rosemary ice cream and caramelized pumpkin seeds. 
The molten chocolate cake is there (with espresso gelato and burnt sesame brittle), and so is the apple crumb with cool cream to pour onto it. Classics, yes -- but with good reason.

Here's the thing: the experimentation, research, and reinvention of the wheel may be happening in this building, but in the pharmaceutical and venture capitalist offices and biotech labs upstairs -- not in the kitchen. On the ground floor at Riverpark, highly-skilled, professional execution of American and European flavors, using top-quality primary ingredients is the name of the game. That it's happening in a fairly underdeveloped slice of Manhattan overlooking a lovely spot on the East River (this should be a great locale come late spring and into summer) is all the more incentive to check out this neighborhood anomaly.

Diner: please pack your wallet and go.

450 E 29th St. New York, NY 10016
Reservations 212.729.9790

Sunday, March 6, 2011

RECIPE: Zuppa di Cavolo Verde con i Ceci e Pomodori

I've always considered March to be an unpleasant month. In the northeastern U.S., and particularly in New York City, it's still pretty much winter. It could rain or sleet, we could get bombarded by a blizzard, or we could wake up to a lovely, short-lived spring morning. But mostly, it's gray and cold. Tonight, it's chilly and rainy and windy, and it's Sunday. It's a perfect evening for a warming, and healthy, bowl of homemade soup. Italian-style, ovviamente.

This soup is something I made with 3 things in mind:
1. I wanted the soup to be a meal-in-a-bowl, and healthy.
2. I wanted to use the organic kale I'd bought at the market, which I purchased also in the interest of healthy eating.
3. I wanted to utilize pantry staples so the soup could be easily reproduced and made on a budget of very little -- and when you don't feel like braving the weather outside.

So, here you have it. Of course, it's even better if you soak and cook your own chickpeas, and if you have fresh tomatoes in season. But since it's March, and I'm a realist, I'll pick my battles and encourage you only to make your own stock. It's easy, it's inexpensive, and it makes your kitchen -- your whole apartment or house, really -- smell like home. 

Zuppa di Cavolo Verde con i Ceci e Pomodori

1 small onion, finely chopped
4 stalks of celery, finely diced
4 carrots, peeled and finely diced
2 TBSP. extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup dry white wine
10 cups chicken or vegetable stock (homemade is best)
1 small can (14 oz.) chopped San Marzano tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon dried chili flakes
1 small can (14 oz.) chickpeas, drained from liquid and rinsed under water
1 head of kale (cavolo verde), or Tuscan cavolo nero if available, washed and dried
salt & pepper, to taste

- In a large soup pot, heat the olive oil until warm, and then add the onion, celery, and carrot. Saute on medium-low until onions are translucent, about 5 minutes.
- Add the white wine to the vegetables, and turn the heat up to medium until most of the liquid is cooked off.
- Add the stock and cover until it comes to a boil.
- Add the tomatoes and chili flakes, cover, and cook for approximately 10 minutes.
- Add the chickpeas, lower the heat to medium-low, cover, and continue cooking.
- With a sharp knife, cut the base of the head of kale off, remove any thick veins, and then slice through the leaves, horizontally, cutting the kale into strips about 1/4 inch wide, so the kale leaves become a sort of "confetti."
- Add the kale to the soup (the leaves will wilt). Stir, and continue to cook for another 15 minutes, allowing flavors to blend. Taste for seasoning, and add salt and pepper to taste.

* This soup, like most soups, is best served the day after it's made, allowing the flavors to develop and blend overnight.