Restaurants & Bars

Burke and Wells Return: Double Review, River Café (Brooklyn), Jovia (UES)

Peter Wells | Jan 21, 200704:34 AM     29

We've missed you, hounds! Rather, we've missed contributing. It's been a strange time for us, peregrinating about the world, in plenty and poverty, always with Chowhound to guide us, but rarely giving back the way we ought. What would we have done without Melanie Wong in San Francisco, or Limster guiding us through our lean Boston years? Our three seasons in Paris and Florence were an unrivaled joy, but the times thereafter were lean. On the plus side, I learned to cook. On the minus, we fell out of the habit of documenting our food lives.

All that's about to change. We took a chance, founded a new company, and it's taken off! We've settled in an enormous loft in DUMBO, with New York beckoning us across the East River. We will venture out from under the blue steel and stone of the Manhattan bridge, eager and a little intimidated at the sheer number of choices before us. Not to fear: Jim Leff calls this town home, and a lot of others just as brilliant, so we're jumping in with all four feet.

This is our first meal after a long fast, so let's gorge on a double review: Brooklyn and Manhattan, jacket required and casual upscale, very good and truly great--River Café and Jovia.

This is our seventh day in our new home, and we're still surrounded by boxes. We've managed to unpack the bed, some kitchen gear, the floor lamps and our good clothes. We can't cook in the chaos, so we eat out: we've already scoured DUMBO and will write about some finds here, but Friday night was our first attempt at a top-notch meal. We choose River Café, the fine-dining boat conjoined to the Fulton landing dock under the Brooklyn Bridge. I knew from the Chowhounds Outer Boroughs board that this was a high-end destination with few negatives and excellent views, so Burke and I shook off the mothballs and walked the few blocks form our new Washington St. home down to the shore.

River Café manages a forest of flowers in the dead of winter, perfuming the walk to the <i>maître'd's</i> podium. The very lovely, elegant young woman eventually hung up the phone and asked us if we had a reservation. We did. She directed us to walk further in to the host's podium. We passed the portholes to the small dining room, where they graciously gave us a window seat, after I asked.

The views are stellar. I mean that--the East River sparkles like stars around the whirling galaxy of Manhattan's lights. At 8:30, with the water taxi making its final run, the bridge looming over the window, you can actually feel the city tugging you into its orbit. We may be new to New York, but I suspect those choice tables by the window at the River Café have the best sea-level view you can find.

Burke and I started with cocktails. My vodka gibson (ah, my Mother's favorite, ordered in her memory) boasted five onions and all the subtlety of an anvil. Burke's vodka martini had more character, but he didn't coo over it. We split the two bread choices; I had the white bun, Burke had the semolina roll, and both were fine, with the butter at proper temperature and firmness (you can judge a restaurant by how they serve their butter). A significant jump up, the appetizers were very tasty, from Burke's buffalo steak tartar (quail egg, capers, onions, cognac <i>gelée</i>) served unmixed and awkwardly mushed together on your plate between your silverware. You could tell it was buffalo, more lean and quite tasty. My seared tuna with <i>foie gras</i> and truffles was excellent, with a spectrum of textures: the outside of the <i>tournedos</i> of bluefin had a sear so narrow they must have been rolled across a hot surface like thick quarters on edge; the tuna was <i>maguro</i> fresh and the <i>foie gras</i> silky, while the truffle scent bound the dish. It was very, very pleasant, and the menu, gratifyingly, failed to call it <i>"a la Rossini."</i>

For mains, my rack of lamb with puréed potatoes and sausage may be the best executed I've had in years, though in a conservative, unsurprising way, presented in a circle of mint mustard sauce and <i>jus</i>, the Frenched bones interlaced like the fingers of an earnest penitent. Burke's crispy duck breast was flavorful and tender, but not absolutely outstanding, with a cute and crunchy <i>croquette</i> and not particularly crispy skin.

Dessert was the most revealing part of the evening. Burke's sticky toffee pudding reinvented sweet-soaked cakes for us. Warm, warming, sweet without being treacly, I stole a few bites because it was irresistible. The pistachio ice cream sandwiched between two thin cookies made a nice counterpoint, but that pudding stole the show. It relied neither on alcohol nor spice, letting the magic of cake and syrup work on our tongues. It's the part of this meal we'll remember.

But my Chocolate Marquise Brooklyn Bridge, though amusing and cunning, felt tired--a joke that was probably fresh and relevant when River Café opened, but more by-the-motions now. The solid chocolate caissons and spanners looked thrown together, the cake and chocolate cream constituting the span had a skin on top, as if the dessert had been prepared by the score hours before and finished later. I don't begrudge a partial pre-assembly, that old restaurant trick, but it can backfire on you if there are fragile elements to the dish. Presentation and whimsy can't wow you past carelessness.

This was a quibble: you don't write off a fine meal like this because of a little leathery skin on a smear of chocolate chantilly, but when we walked out, $250 poorer (with a 20% tip and only one glass of wine), we felt a little let down. Why? The food was almost universally excellent, the servers followed all the rules (replacing and folding napkins when we went to the restrooms, swapping silverware between courses, offering an <i>amuse</i> of perfectly delicious portabella soup and a finale of chocolate caramels with the check), but there was nothing warming or welcoming to the experience. Nothing magical. We were just two more patrons, expecting a fine meal and accepting upon delivery. It felt like a Fine Restaurant. But that's what we wanted, that's why we put on our good jackets (required), that's why we paid our bill, yes?

Today, the day after, Burke and I spent an afternoon sighing over antiques we can't afford at the Winter Antiques Fair at the Armory on Park and 67th. This was our first trip into Manhattan since moving into Brooklyn, and what a delight! Like true first-time New Yorkers, we got lost on the subway. Who ever heard of a station where you can board the downtown side of a train but not the uptown? F to the 6, and then no way to ride the 6 uptown? This system will require further investigation.

We made it to the show, and afterwards braved the 5-below wind chill along Lexington arount 5 o'clock, looking for a place to eat. Just off 62nd, I spied a cheerful red awning and we ducked in. No drown of flowers here, just a long bar in modern leather and dark woods, neat little leather chairs and tables marching along the wall to the host's station.

"Hi! We just walked in, do you have a table for two?"

The young women here were all smiles, not nearly as elegant, but brighter, less studied, and more engaging. "Just a sec," said one, "I'll axe around. Do you mind eating down here, by the bar?" The dining rooms were clearly up the stairs behind her, but the bar looked cozy and was empty (even on a Saturday night), and those leather chairs with the tiny lumbar pillows seemed mighty comfy, so we decided to try it.

Our server for the night was Michelle, who tended the bar. She was friendly, open, cheerful, the very antidote to the cold outside. I was curious about the ultraslim breadsticks at the bar, she brought us over a bucketful (literally a small champagne bucket, very cute).

"Are you having bread tonight?" she asked.

"Oh yes!" I nodded.

"Good! I have to ask, with everyone still low-carbing, I get turned away from the table so often and with such horror that I run away, scared."

"Well," I mused, "Perhaps they're vampires and you're serving garlic bread?"

In fact, it was rosemary buns warm from the oven, with crusty <i>peccorino</i> cheese and salt, moist and delicious, not at all greasy. We tore through two of them before holding back, lest we fill up before the <i>primi</i>.

I decided to risk starting with the soup. This soup was a revelation: celery root <i>purée</i> with an ale base, served over steamed mussels and heightened with a perfume of mint. Yes, mint. Swirled with aged balsamic and served dramatically in a porcelain bowl with a lid, the taste was unlike anything I've ever had. Creamy, but not heavy, the ale giving warmth and character, the meaty chew of the mussels and over it all that soprano of mint! It really taught me something about soup. Next time I make my favorite butternut squash soup with sage and apples, I'm going to try adding some beer, or maybe shellfish. Who knows?

We gushed to Michelle, who told us the staff was anxious about it: we were practically the guinea pigs, first to ever order it. This was their first day offering it on the menu; Michelle and the staff were in back tasting it just minutes before, getting familiar. We assured them it was a fine, fine addition. We were still talking about it when the pasta arrived.

Burke's <i>papperdelle</i> with black olives and mushrooms had that long, wrinkly glory that spoke of real hand-made pasta, and my <i>bucatini alla matriciana</i>, in a fantastic red sauce meatened up with braised veal cheeks, was bathed in a cloud of truffle aroma and flavor. Red sauces are my enemy, almost always watery or twangy with too much acid, but this one was thick and rich and perfectly seasoned. The pasta itself kept its integrity, thick, spaghetti-like, but hollow and very long, far less heavy than it looked. We were in heaven.

The <i>secondi</i> kept the score at its near-perfect level, with Burke's venison dazzling in a blazing crimson beet sauce over root vegetables and a side of perfectly sautéed broccoli <i>rabe</i>. The alarming red color reminded us this was game, and savage even in its subdued state. Tender, fresh, perfectly seasoned once again, it banished the chill outside, a perfect winter dish. My braised short rib was done to perfection, the red wine in which it was cooked seeping in to the marrow. The cheese-studded rough grey <i>polenta</i> cradled it in heavy luxury, too enormous a portion to eat. A knife was provided, but utterly unnecessary, either for me or for Burke.

By now we were giggling with happiness, still alone in the bar area, becoming fast friends with Michelle. Then Eben Copple, the executive chef, came out to talk to us. Tall, with a small bristle of facial hair, he reminded me of Duff from Food Network's <i>Ace of Cakes</i>, and he had the same amused, down-to-earth attitude. He didn't schmooze us, he talked to us, which is rare anywhere. We asked his help on dessert, and he instead sent out Jennifer, the pastry chef.

Jennifer was as kind and friendly as the rest of the staff, taking us through the dessert menu with bashful pride. Burke opted for the <i>budino di cioccolata</i>, described intriguingly as a chocolate pudding with smoked fudge.

"Smoked fudge?"

"Well, yeah," Jennifer confessed. "I don't actually smoke it. I add Lagavulin scotch to it, gives it a smokeiy taste."

Burke chose that, he's a scotch fanatic (has a bottle of Lagavulin all his own, in fact). I opted for the <i>torta di limon</i>, which Jennifer said was an attempt to recapture a dessert her mother used to make with Cool Whip and Jell-O. Sounded like food from the heart, so I ordered it. Then Michelle came by. "Jennifer just asked me for a couple of martini glasses," she whispered to us. "I think you're getting something special."

Jennifer returned with palette cleansers: quince paste under a small scoop of tangerine <i>gelato</i> and a crush of pistachios. "I think quince paste is underutilized," she explained, setting the elegant glasses before us. "I made this myself, the old fashioned way. It took three days, but I've been hugging the jar ever since." She ought to go into business producing it. I love quince paste, Burke and I have it with stilton whenever we can. But this was another revelation! Softer, fresher, without the grainy harshness of the slab you pull off the dusty shelf of the specialty food store. The citrus of the tangerine ices married with it, brightened it, even the sprig of parsley (!) matched perfectly, an herbal note and more green to go with the pistachios. What a way to chase down the fat and gelatin of braised short ribs.

Dessert managed to top even that. The lemon tart was light, refreshing, not very strong on the lemon, gentler, so the sage came through on the crust and on the fried sage leaves on top, a perfect compliment to the candied lemon wheels and the sugared walnuts. Burke's chocolate dessert, served in a near globe of glass, was a heart of darkness. Chef Eben Copple stopped by again.

"That <i>budino</i>, that's just retarded delicious, isn't it?" Yes. Yes it was stupid delicious. Michelle came by with two free glasses of <i>muscato</i>, a sparkling muscat like a <i>spumanti</i>, just right to cut through the wonderful sweetness. The conversation, the feeling of familial cheer, our secret-but-in-plain-sight demesne near the bar, all these complimentary goodies, the evening was already magical.

Jennifer reappeared. "I brought you some biscotti for your espresso," she smiled. "And some nougat." I doubt anyone in the upstairs dining room got quince paste and <i>gelato</i>, complimentary <i>muscato</i> or free cookies and nougat with coffee. We dipped and delighted, the warm, cozy air surrounding us.

Michelle left the bar long enough to take us on a tour of the upstairs, with its twin dining rooms, private table and more. Downstairs, we toured the kitchen, where Chef Eben couldn't resist offering us sips of olive oils he was tasting, trying to find the right one. "You gotta try this Olive Verdi," he poured. "It's really green." It was.

We got our jackets and were already bundling up when we realized we hadn't paid yet. I was free to tip extravagantly, because the whole bill was $143, not much more than half of what we paid at River Café, but ten times the experience.

Back home, I checked Chowhounds for reviews of Jovia. Seems Chef Josh DeChellis used to run the show, and few Chowhounds have been by since Chef Eben took the reins. I don't know when the switch took place, but something must have happened between adam's Chowhound review of Sept. 15, 2006 and today--perhaps they hit their stride, because our meal tonight was nothing short of magical. There was no <i>foie gras</i> on the menu, true, and no re-worked steak tartar prepared table side; no jacket was required, and though full, they happily took a walk-in. By most every measure, including price, Jovia isn't in the same league as River Café.

But Chowhound isn't about the luxury of the ingredients or the dent in the wallet. Chowhound is about that barely-definable something, that magic that makes an experience "chowhoundish," be it a two-dollar hot dog or the latest befoamed microgreen at the three-star temple. The tip for Chowhounds is to go to Jovia on a Monday, Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday when Michelle is there and sit at the bar tables, and give with your enthusiasm and your heart. You will get it back double.

In the end, there was nothing wrong with the River Café, but I wouldn't call it a Chowhoundish experience. New York promises to be a fruitful field, and I want magic out of everything, from the morning <i>croissant</i> to the warm bag of peanuts I hope to score at a Mets game (or MAYBE a Yankee's game, but don't hold me to that). Further, both Burke and I are on Weight Watchers, and on Monday, when this week of debauchery ends, we will return to a healthy diet. That won't stop us from exploring every food corner Greater New York has to offer. I know Chowhound will be here to guide us. We'll be here to report our findings.

Thanks for the welcome, New York City. You already feel like home.

--P. Wells

A Burke and Wells Review.

River Café, 1 Water St., Brooklyn, NY 11201, (718) 522-5200

Jovia, 135 E. 62nd St., New York, NY 10021, (212) 752-6266

A Burke and Wells Review

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