My first time going undercover, I felt like a teenager going to his junior prom: a little sweaty, definitely nervous, and anxious to make the right impression. But instead of asking the girl out and meeting the parents, I was making a dinner reservation and meeting the hostess. On the phone, I played it cool, used my especially endearing and seductively honest voice—what could this young man have to hide? “I’d like a table for four on October 16th at 7:00 p.m.” I said confidently. “Can I have your name please?” “Radfurd,” I answered, a name I randomly invented hours before. “Can I have your first name as well?” “Aaron.” Also part of the original plan. “And may I ask who you’re affiliated with?”
Time stopped, and adrenaline poured into my bloodstream, heartbeat quickening, breathing shallow, alert and ready for attack from some primordial beast. Where did I go wrong? With what blundering phrase did I tip off this reservationist that I intended much more than a relaxed Friday night on the town with friends? “No one, I’m just a private citizen,” I stammered, taken completely by surprise. She told me to hold, and I waited for her verdict. “I’m sorry, we’re doing preview dinners through the 14th and I was confused,” she said. Disaster averted, I gave the woman one of my friend’s cellphone numbers for confirmation and hung up, utterly relieved.
Last spring, I wrote a decidedly a negative review of Tom Colicchio’s then new restaurant, Colicchio & Sons. Following a smidgen of media coverage and a tongue-in-cheek tweet from Insatiable Critic Gael Greene, Colicchio responded to my review. His vituperative message seemed clear enough: college students, college critics for that matter, have no inkling about food or restaurant reviewing. For more details about this escapade, click here, here, and here.
After the Tom Colicchio debacle, I assumed that the doors of any Colicchio restaurant would remain shuttered to me in perpetuum. I avoided ‘wichcraft, stayed away from Craft, and made joking excuses to escape return visits to Colicchio & Sons. This October, however, Colicchio opened a new spot, Riverpark. I knew that I needed to visit, both to see whether Colicchio’s latest creation might surpass his disastrous last and to resolve a nagging tension in my psyche. Entering the lair of the beast, I might do battle with the (imagined) monster within and unmask him to my mind’s eye. I also might enjoy a delicious dinner.
Unfortunately, I suspected—probably entirely from paranoia—that Tom Colicchio continues to hold a grudge. As such, I doubted that I could simply show up to Riverpark as myself and obtain easy access. Moreover, once inside the staff or kitchen might treat me differently. After all, the problem of anonymity plagues all critics, not just those that restaurateurs despise particularly. Restaurant reviews ought to reflect as closely as possible the everyman, average experience in a given establishment. (For my diatribe on the institution of restaurant reviews, click here.) In order to preserve the objectivity of my meal and my personal well-being, I needed to make my trip to Riverpark a covert operation.
Despite my name change, I made few alterations to my personal appearance. No wigs, no contacts, no false or quickly grown beards. Luckily, I look relatively inconspicuous, an ordinary twenty-something with no visible gang tattoos or quirky outfits. As far as I know, only one image of me has proliferated on the internet, my facebook profile. Taken four years ago in black and white, the picture provides little to pick me out from a crowd. To mix up my usual modus operandi—dining alone or with a single partner—I brought along a couple of friends. We arrived at Riverpark separately, and my friend Andrew forgot the name of the reservation. Already seated without incident at a table, I watched as my friends stood awkwardly at the hostess desk. I called Andrew and told him the name, but the hostess failed to locate it in their computer system. Nevertheless, they found their way to my table following a brief walk around the room. Andrew said that he forgot what name I made the reservation under, and the waiter looked on suspiciously, asking again for the name. Explaining (or rather, lying) that I actually made the reservation under Andrew’s name (“Oh, of course!”), I eased the staff’s concerns and settled in for an undercover meal.
Riverpark is undoubtedly a better restaurant than Colicchio & Sons. The disconcerting classic rock soundtrack aside, dining at Riverpark feels comfortably New York: diffuse, amber lighting, gigantic glass windows overlooking the East River, appropriately stylish banquets, a central bar. Unfortunately, that bar divides the dining room from a more casual café space, or “pub,” whatever name the designers chose to justify serving two separate menus (despite the fact that anyone can order off of either menu). And the dining room enjoys those East River views only with difficulty, craning necks to peer through the bar. Friday night of opening week, Riverpark looked essentially empty, barely alive at all. Located far, far away from Midtown action at 29th Street and 1st Avenue, Riverpark deters potential customers on the basis of travel time alone. Intended to serve the medical center communities and the Alexandria Center, Riverpark seems unlikely to attract doctors or businesspeople after tedious workdays. With lower prices than Colicchio & Sons, Riverpark targets weeknight diners and a lunchtime bunch from nearby offices, but I fear that Colicchio’s reputation for fine (read expensive) dining will ward off the crowds.
But that would be a shame, because as mentioned above, Riverpark is an enjoyable, solid choice for both after work loungers and food enthusiasts. . .who happen to wander over to Kips Bay. From the raw bar, a hamachi crudo and tartare comes garnished with pomegranate seeds, a light, autumnal appetizer that demonstrates a delicate sensibility in the kitchen. Sisha Ortuzar, ‘wichcraft chef and creative director, leads Riverpark’s kitchen, bringing an international flair to Colicchio’s “Contemporary American” cuisine. This internationally informed food oftentimes falls victim to distraction; squab mole and mackerel escabeche share menu space with mushroom consommé and a seafood spaghetti. The appetizer menu dances between Latin America, Spain, and Italy, stopping over in America for lost connections. For example, pumpkin seed tortellini emphasizes the heavier side of American October fare, what with roasted squash soup and sage rounding out the cold weather concoction. Nutty and rich, this Italian pasta dish tastes a bit boring and predictable, but satisfying somewhere deep in the gullet nonetheless.
Main courses stray into more familiar American territory too, focusing on the market-driven dishes everywhere on Manhattan menus these days. An enormous pork chop, cooked to a juicy medium-rare, rests on Brussels sprout-apple hash and parsnip purée. Here, too much pork chop and not enough hash leads to bite after bite of meat—however well-prepared, the pork needs more vegetable and starch accompaniment for balance. Better harmonized, rack of lamb comes with green wheat, roasted tomato, smoked eggplant, and parsley. In order to achieve that meat-vegetable-starch parity though, the amount of protein is diminished, leaving not enough to satiate hungry college students. Worse, roasted snapper is overcooked, collapsing into a saffron-scented seafood stew. Considering that the chops arrive too cold to the table, I suspect that the Brobdingnagian pork chop roasted away in an oven whilst our other two dishes took a breather under heating lamps.
Such opening week quibbles aside, my meal at Riverpark satisfied me. The main courses, while not exciting per se, feel comforting without overt pretension. Hopefully, the mish-mash of appetizers falls into order soon, too. For those working nearby, Riverpark constitutes a welcome addition to the neighborhood; I, on the other hand, will likely never return. The ordeal of getting from Morningside Heights to the restaurant built up an excessively hearty appetite.
Ultimately, I’m glad I went undercover to dine at Riverpark; ensuring that my identity remained unknown, I ate without fear of, however improbably, receiving atypical service. Consequently, I gave Colicchio and Ortuzar a fair opportunity to impress. I feel proud that I’m a man who no longer holds grudges; I believe in second chances and forgiveness, especially in the culinary world. Maybe the next time I visit a Colicchio restaurant, I won’t have to run a covert operation to receive assurance of a similarly fair dining experience.