Allow me to judge Tom Colicchio.
Colicchio, as fans of Top Chef on Bravo know, is that show’s head judge. Each episode he sits in judgement of hapless young chefs, justified in doing so because of his past successes and experience. Colicchio was the co-owner and executive chef of Gramercy Tavern when it opened in 1994. That restaurant was a critical triumph and became a favorite of many New Yorkers and visitors, including me. It’s a place I revisit often and always have a first-rate experience. (That continues to be true even though Colicchio is no longer associated with that restaurant.) His credentials are well established.
So when you’re a success, there is a higher level of expectation. And when you use your knowledge and experience to adjudicate others, the “judge not lest ye also be judged” maxim kicks in (and, yes, as a critic myself I’m not unaware of the irony here).
So I expected more from Riverpark: A Tom Colicchio Restaurant. Yes, that’s the full name. I expected more from the location, from the atmosphere, from the service and, foremost, from the food. My recent dinner at the Manhattan restaurant overlooking the East River was one disappointment after another.
Marring much of the experience was the staff, including our waiter, who was youthful and earnest but, ultimately, inept. And he wasn’t alone. Other staffers clearly had little knowledge of the menu. Even the simplest of questions stumped them. What made it worse was that instead of saying “I don’t know” some of them just made stuff up. A recommendation for a wine to go with my entree brought the response, “All of our wines are very good.” A question about the provenance of one of the cheeses on the cheese plate brought two different answers from two different staffers. A server’s assistant removed our bread knives but not the bread plates. The flatware that went to the kitchen with our appetizer plates was not refreshed even when our entrees were presented — we had to ask for utensils. Empty cocktail glasses remained on the table too long.
A restaurateur with Colicchio’s background should have better training in place. These people never would have gotten an interview for a job at Gramercy Tavern.
And the chef would never survive to see another episode of Top Chef with the food I had, the majority of which was over salted and, strangely, over citrused. My appetizer of cavatelli was both. The bowl of grubworm-shaped pasta included sweet peas and mint and a few — too few — pieces of braised lamb, which were, it must be noted, wonderfully tender and delicious. But the tart citrus notes and the heavy hand on the salt shaker detracted too much.
My companion’s sweetbreads, on the other hand, weren’t too salty but had the heavy squirt of lemon juice. The sweetbreads themselves were perfect, firm and flavorful.
My friend’s entree of squid ink chitarra got the citrus and salt treatment. The bowl of black pasta strings (chitarra means guitar) might have been better with more even seasoning, but it also lacked much of the promised octopus, squid and shrimp.
My grilled flatiron steak was very good. The meat was cooked to the requested medium-rare and was tender and — praise the kitchen gods! — well seasoned. It was accompanied by heirloom beans and guajillo chiles, which gave a pleasant hot note, and it had a barbecue saucy sauce.
Lemon steamed pudding (more citrus!) was just OK. The cheeses, wherever they came from, mundane.
Despite the name, Riverpark is not in a park — it’s in a sterile looking office building — and, technically, it isn’t on the river but rather across the FDR and raised above the traffic, but not far enough to muffle the sound of speeding cars and trucks.
Inside, the atmosphere is modern, not to mention free of traffic sounds. There is an elaborate wood latticelike structure with small light cubes that wraps over the bar and part of the dining room. A number of tables provide good views of the river and Queens beyond. Music that started out too rock-y eventually settled into quieter standards.
If this restaurant were located anywhere else, its foibles might be dismissed for inexperience or ignorance of proper methods and means. Manhattan knows better. And so does Tom Colicchio.
Here is a link to Riverpark’s website for more information.