Sunday, July 27, 2014

NYC Restaurant Week Lunch at Riverpark

I wait for restaurant week all year long.  It happens twice a year - once in the winter and once in the summer - and as soon as the restaurant list is released, I'm scanning over it and checking the menus for where I want to eat.  I have a fairly strict set of criteria for restaurants.  I only eat at restaurants that are expensive enough that I might not eat at them normally.  If the lunch prix fixe for Restaurant week is $25, I will also not make a reservation at a restaurant where the entrees typically cost around $15 because that's hardly a good deal.  And if the restaurant is only offering two choices for the main course and one is chicken and the other is pasta, I also won't eat there.  This is partially because I generally find chicken not to be that exciting and partially because, once again, I don't feel like I'm getting my money's worth if I'm paying $25 for chicken that I can buy at the market for less than $2 per pound.  And ditto for pasta.  So with these criteria in mind, I quickly narrow down my list of potential restaurants to try.
Last year I read some effusively wonderful reviews of the Restaurant Week experience at Tom Colicchio’s Riverpark, on the East side of Manhattan.  Main courses for lunch typically run $18 - $25 with desserts from $8 (for simple sorbet or ice cream) to $14.  They offer a nice selection of choices for Restaurant Week - more than four options for each course! - so my criteria were met, and I made my reservation.
The only problem with Restaurant Week is that you have to make reservations during the week.  For anyone who works and can't easily take a 2-3 hours lunch break, this is difficult.  I, luckily (or perhaps unluckily... depends on your point of view), don't work, so I had no problem with this.  I couldn't find anyone to go with me though, so I decided to hell with it, it's my birthday, and went to lunch with just the company of a good book, which I figured I would read while waiting in between courses.  Both the hostess and my waiter seemed very sympathetic to the fact that I was dining alone.  I don't know if this was because I had noted that it was my birthday when I made the reservation, so they pitied the girl celebrating alone, or if it was because they seated me outside, where I just happened to be surrounded by couples, romantically enjoying each other's presence.  Either way, I wasn't particularly bothered.

My lunch began with the Sweet Corn Panna Cotta. It was served with a corn salad, avocado, lime crème fraîche, and huitlacoche (apparently a type of corn fungus???) vinaigrette. I was not a big fan of any of the items accompanying the panna cotta (and this was before I came home and google told me that one of the ingredients was corn fungus).  The corn salad was fine but I honestly couldn't tell if it was fresh corn or canned corn, which is kind of sad.  The avocado was rather over-salted/over-seasoned and the vinaigrette was far too strong.   I loved the corn panna cotta though.  The texture was on point - quiveringly light - and the flavor was stellar.  I'd order it again in a heartbeat, I just wouldn't waste my time eating anything else on the plate.

The bread served with the meal is in the form of a mini baguette, served with good cold butter. It was really good; light, with a nice crust.  I finished my first one with my appetizer, and was asked if I wanted more with my entree. (The answer to that is always yes.)

My main course was the Lamb Ribs and Sausage, served with tempura artichokes, olives, almonds, and a yogurt sauce.  My ribs were scorched.  By that, I mean, they arrived at the table black. I had to scrape off the burnt outside layer, and then sadly found that the meat was over-seasoned.  I was also not a big fan of the yogurt sauce. The sausage was a bit dry, but not bad. The biggest problem was that this was just not a good summer dish.  It felt heavy and I was tired of it after a few bites.  The fish dishes being ordered around me looked far tastier and I wish I had ordered that instead.
I was given - for free - a side of grilled okra (typically $6).  I was unsure if this was because it was my birthday or because they felt pity for me because I was dining alone.  Either way, it was a nice touch and I enjoyed the veggies, but they were also fairly scorched.  Is this the new style?  Maybe I'm just unsophisticated.

For dessert, I had the Basil Cream Puff served with strawberries, granola, and strawberry sorbet. This was amazing.  Really.  The basil cream puff was so fragrant, and the combination with the fresh strawberries and the sorbet was on point.  I wish I could have had two more servings of this.  I enjoyed every single spoonful.

The service was very friendly. I got a happy birthday message on my menu and a candle on my dessert. The timing of the dishes was also good. It was a leisurely meal, and I never felt rushed, but I never felt that service was slow.

While I was fairly disappointed by my main course, I don't think the lamb is normally scorched that way, and I did enjoy both of my other dishes.  I had a good overall experience and left full.  I had been so looking forward to Riverpark though, I couldn't decide if they let me down or if it was a fluke, so I wanted to give them another chance.  I don't typically do this, but I decided to go back for another Restaurant Week lunch (and this time, I did have company).

Cured salmon appetizer (left) and merluza with faro and heirloom tomatoes main course (right)

On my second visit, I started with the house cured Atlantic salmon, which is a fairly simple dish. It was rather generously salted, but that only encouraged me to eat their bread, which is quite good. I also enjoyed the slightly brined cucumbers.

For my main course I ordered the merluza, which is a white fish served with heirloom tomatoes and faro.  A tomato consumme is poured on top, tableside.  I really loved this dish.  It was light, fragrant, and perfect for summer.  The tomatoes provided a lovely accompanying acidity to the flaky fish, and the texture of the faro was perfect.  There was nothing to complain about.

For my dessert, I considered trying the peach cobbler, but I had so enjoyed the basil cream puffs with raspberry sorbet the last time I was here that I wanted to order it again.  It did not disappoint.

Amusingly, I had the same waiter for lunch that I had had for my previous lunch.  He remembered me (I suppose it's hard to forget an Asian girl who dines alone on her birthday), and service was just as friendly and attentive as it had been the first time.

The seating area outside is beautiful.  As their website describes, this restaurant is located in a "garden plaza with romantic East River views."  What they fail to mention is the construction going on around the area, or the sounds of traffic which you can clearly hear if you sit outside.  However, neither of these things bothered me.  The area is very comfortable, with pillows on the "booth" sides and a nice breeze coming off the water and the shade from the building keeps you cool, even when it's hot out.

In general, I think Riverpark earned itself a solid B.  There's definitely room for improvement in terms of seasoning (less salt!) and cooking (there's a difference between a nice char and a terrible scorch), but the creativity and flavors are there, if they can just get down the execution.  For $25, it's not a bad deal.

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