Hudson River Cafe caught my attention, in the first place because well publicized openings north of 125th Street are fairly rare, and in the second place, because it opened just in time for my big move uptown. It’s a beautiful bi-level space, with ample space both indoors and out. So far, it seems to be attracting mainly a local crowd. With live music on Friday nights, the bar resembles a bustling Caribbean resort, while the indoor dining room is a bit more sedate.
From the restaurant’s name, you might expect river views. But you’d be wrong. The only views are an elevated viaduct on the restaurant’s west side, and Fairway Market to the south. The architect and designer did the best they could with the hand they were dealt, but it almost seems a pity to have a restaurant with no view of the river it’s named for. We initially requested outdoor seating upstairs, where I thought we might have a decent view. Once we realized that a cement wall was all we could see, we asked to go indoors.
The only mainstream media review so far is from Randall Lane in Time Out New York, who calls it a “Harlem oasis” and awards three stars out of six. The cuisine is difficult to classify. Savory New York calls it “New American,” but Lane’s “Nueva Latina” might be nearer the mark. The menu offers several ceviches and paellas, and the choice of spices has a distinctly Caribbean feel. But there’s also an emphasis on locally sourced seasonal ingredients, like Blue Point Oysters and Bell & Evans Chicken. Some of the items are generic, like the raw bar, pastas, and steaks.
Arctic Char Ceviche (left); Crispy and Spicy Buffalo Shrimp (right)
My girlfriend started with the Arctic Char Ceviche ($12), which was absolutely spectacular—one of the best ceviches either of us has tasted. The photo doesn’t show the depth of the serving bowl, but it was actually a quite sizable portion. We were also surprised at the bounty of Crispy and Spicy Buffalo Shrimp ($12), but the preparation was rather pedestrian and unsubtle.
Whole Branzini with Garlic Mashed Potato and Garlic Chimichurri Sauce
As one so often sees these days, the entrées are divided into composed plates ($20–34) and “simply grilled” items ($18–26), for which there is a multiple choice of side dishes and sauces. The Whole Branzini ($26) was in the latter category. It was beautifully done, and perfectly satisfying on its own; the garlic chimichurri sauce (which the server recommended) was redundant, and the garlic mashed potatoes (also a server recommendation) didn’t do much for me either. My girlfriend ordered the strip steak ($32), which was competent and unremarkable.
The beverage menu didn’t list the sangria, which is an odd omission, as it is terrific. We saw it on another table, so that’s what we asked for, and we were glad we did.
Hudson River Cafe is off the beaten path. The travel time from our Hudson Heights apartment turned out to be quite a bit longer than it appeared on the map—about 45 minutes. It’s a hike from either of the two nearest subway stops (125th Street or 137th Street on the #1 train). Some might be a bit skittish about the neighborhood, especially at night. While there’s plenty of activity in the immediate vicinity, the streets nearby are a bit desolate. We didn’t mind it at all, and will probably return, but I can’t yet call Hudson River Cafe a destination restaurant. With some judicious editing of the menu, it very well might become one.
Hudson River Cafe (697 W. 133rd Street at Twelfth Avenue, Manhattanville/West Harlem)