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River Room

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The River Room, practically deserted.

With its gorgeous unobstructed river views, Riverbank State Park would seem the ideal place for a romantic restaurant. That was the premise when Earl Monroe’s Restaurant, named for the former New York Knicks guard, opened a couple of years ago.

The park is located along the Hudson River. It’s built atop a waste treatment plant, though you wouldn’t be immediately aware of that. Designers did a terrific job turning an otherwise desolate stretch of waterfront into a gorgeous public space. Its location in West Harlem might at first seem inaccessible, but it’s only about a ten-minute walk from the 145th Street stop on the #1 train.

river_room_inside3.jpgEarl Monroe’s drew a reasonably favorable Diner’s Journal piece from Frank Bruni in the Times. Later on, Earl Monroe severed his relationship with the owners, and they renamed the restaurant River Room. It’s on something like the third chef in two years, clearly not a sign of success.

The photo on the website (right) leads you to expect a bustling crowd. The reality (above) is quite a different thing. On a Friday night, the place was practically empty. It’s open only four nights a week. There is live jazz on Friday and Saturday nights (for which there is a $5 surcharge), but it’s not a draw.

The location isn’t the problem. A couple of weeks ago, we visited Hudson River Cafe, also located on the riverbank in Harlem, also offering have live music on Friday nights. It was packed. River Room is actually closer to the subway than Hudson River Cafe, but it’s a ghost town. The reason, I suspect, is that the food just isn’t that good. Frankly, the jazz was mediocre too.

The website describes the cuisine as as “a unique fusion of Southern, Caribbean, Latin and African influences.” It is rare that a chef trying to do so many things will produce a memorable result. Usually, it just seems like the chef can’t make up his mind.

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Deep-fried oysters (left); Deep-fried calamari (right)

We hadn’t planned it, but both my girlfriend and I ordered deep-fried appetizers: calamari for her ($8), oysters for me ($9, as I recall). The kitchen is skilled with the deep fryer. Breading wasn’t overbearing, nor was either dish overly greasy. The oysters were great,  but the calamari came lukewarm.

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Caribbean Crab Cakes (left); Mexican Spiced Duck (right)

My girlfriend’s Caribbean Crab Cakes ($21) seemed to have been deep-fried, and on their own would have been just about perfect. But they came swimming in a gloppy cole slaw that was drowned in mayonaise. Mexican Spiced Duck ($24) seemed neither Mexican nor spicy to me. It was over-cooked, though partly rehabilitated by a nice layer of crisp fat. It came on a bed of braised collard greens, which were almost inedible.

river_room_03.jpgThe restaurant has neither a wine list nor a beverage menu, a peculiar omission that almost certainly dampens alcohol sales. When we asked about wine, our server recited a list of two reds and five whites, and steered us to a very respectable Sauvignon Blanc at $34.

I’ve seen a lot of message board posts taking River Room to task for poor service, but we didn’t have that issue at all. Actually, we found our server quite helpful and professional. We felt rather sorry for the guy: with the place so empty, his tip income can’t be very good.

The space is attractive, and though not really apparent from the photos, the seating is quite comfortable. The view takes center stage, and while I know the old adage about restaurants with views, there’s no reason why the food couldn’t be better. With some more focus in the kitchen, this could be one of Manhattan’s truly romantic getaways. But until they bring in Chef #4, I won’t be going back.

River Room (145th Street west of Riverside Drive, at Riverbank State Park, West Harlem)

Food: Mediocre
Service: *
Ambiance: *½
Overall: Can’t Recommend

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