The unwritten rules that divide success from failure in the restaurant world are counter-intuitive. When Tom Colicchio’s new Riverpark opened in late September, Eater.com noted that it “provides a much needed dining option to the vast number of hospital workers in the wasteland that is the upper 20s around 1st Avenue.”
You’d think that a fine-dining restaurant by one of America’s best-known celebrity chefs, in a neighborhood where it’ll have the market to itself, would be a sure thing. Oddly enough, it usually doesn’t work that way. There’s a reason why nobody else has put a destination restaurant along hospital row. A health care worker in scrubs, after a long shift, isn’t looking for a $14 burger or $55 chicken for two.
Colicchio has doubled down on this location, which also has an outpost of his ’wichcraft sandwich chain, in a gorgeous all-glass building (see photo, right). I suspect it will do quite well; the restaurant is an entirely different matter.
Riverpark is in the brand new Alexandria Center, a biotech tower on East 29th Street past First Avenue, more than half-a-mile from the nearest subway station. To reach the restaurant, you walk past an unmarked gate at 29th & First, up a long unmarked driveway, and finally get to the dining room at the back of a sterile-looking lobby that smells like car dealership. It will get zero walk-in business, because you don’t even know it’s there. Drug reps will need to buy a lot of expense-account meals to fill this place.
It’s not all bad news for Riverpark. At this early date, the food is pretty good. That’s a contrast to Colicchio & Sons across town, where our early meal was a disaster—and many critics (though not the Times) had a similar experience.
The décor is right out of the Craft–Craftsteak handbook, with the addition of unobstructed East River views. It’s a pity that the floor-to-ceiling windows don’t open (as far as we could tell). The terrace just might be the city’s best outdoor dining destination, but first, Riverpark will have to tough out a long winter. Opening now, just as the weather is turning, was clearly not the best timing—even if a construction schedule beyond the restaurant’s control was the reason for it.
Though Riverpark is billed as “A Tom Colicchio Restaurant,” it doesn’t charge Tom Colicchio prices. Except for a few entrées “for two,” all of the mains are $28 or less. There’s also a separate bar menu, with entrées all under $20. That $55 chicken is an anomaly; everything else is quite reasonable, especially given the tariff at Colicchio’s other places.
The staff somewhat arbitrarily calls half the room “the pub,” but there is no noticeable difference between the two spaces, and either menu is served at any table. I think the so-called pub tables, situated closer to the water, are actually more desirable. In an odd design choice, the bar occupies the middle of the room, blocking the view for many of the so-called “dining room” tables, and leaving many of the bar patrons facing the wrong way.
Colicchio has handed over the cooking duties to his deputy, Sisha Ortuzar, who was the corporate chef of ’wichcraft for the last seven years. I wondered how well a sandwich guy would transition to fine dining. Quite well, it turns out.
Squab Mole ($15; above left) doesn’t look that great in the photo, but it’s a very good dish. So is Glazed Pork Belly ($9; above right) with pickled vegetables and jalapeño. The former comes from the dinner menu, the latter from the pub menu, but you would never guess that.
Sea Bass ($25; above left) was nicely done, in a rich seafood sauce, though I could have done without the crostini (shown at the top of the plate), which got a bit soggy. Spaghetti ($24 as an entrée; above right), clearly house-made, was just fine, with calamari, lobster, cockles, tomato, black olives, lemon, and basil.
We weren’t quite ready for dinner to end, so we ordered a Fruit Crisp ($10; right) to share, which was as good as it ought to be.
The restaurant is offering a 20 percent discount for the first two weeks. Even without that, the meal would have been $150 including cocktails and a bottle of wine, which is more than fair for food of this quality. You’d pay at least $50 more at Colicchio & Sons or Craft, with no assurance you’d enjoy it any better.
Our server was attentive, if slightly over-stretched, and there were some inexplicably long gaps between courses. However, that is one of the reasons why opening discounts are offered. I do not hold it against them.
The dining room was fairly empty at 6:30 p.m., but by the time we left, around 8:30, it was around 90 percent full. Keeping it full will be a challenge, as there is no history of fine dining in this neighborhood, and as a destination Riverpark is a very long hike from just about anywhere. On a value basis, this is probably the best of Colicchio’s New York restaurants, but I don’t know how often he’ll lure diners this far east.
Riverpark (450 E. 29th Street, east of First Avenue, Kips Bay)