The name of this unlikely new restaurant in the Rivington Hotel is an acronym derived from the words The Hotel On Rivington. Thor also happens to be the Norse god of thunder, of course, and like so much on the Lower East Side these days, the Rivington, and the restaurant in it, seems to have been flung down among the old bodegas and unisex hairstyling parlors like some thunderbolt from the sky. The hotel opened last summer, a boxy Plexiglas tower looming over the bustling intersection of Rivington and Ludlow Streets. Twelve months later, the intersection has become a kind of pocket-size version of the meatpacking district. By day, it’s populated by local boulevardiers who slouch in a variety of ever-propagating new bars and restaurants. On weekend evenings, the streets are jammed with revelers and lines of lurching taxicabs and limousines.
Except for Wylie Dufresne, who has made the Lower East Side into his own personal culinary playground, few topflight chefs have taken part in this transformation. But with the opening of Thor, that’s changed. The restaurant is the brainchild of Kurt Gutenbrunner, who runs the excellent Austrian restaurant Wallsé in the West Village and Café Sabarsky on the Upper East Side. Gutenbrunner is a classicist who bathes his recipes in a kind of refined, Greenmarket lightness, and at Thor, his biggest project to date, he lets his imagination run wild. The big, airy room is decorated by the Dutch designer Marcel Wanders in sleek, Euro-modern fashion. The wallpaper is patterned with tiny kaleidoscopic black, white, and yellow squares, and the rows of black café tables are set with tiny white calla lilies. A steady nightclub beat thrums ceaselessly from the dimly lit lounge area, and dinner proceeds under a giant skylight, through which you can observe the fire escapes of ancient tenement buildings, lit up in the night sky like old Greek ruins.
For his foray into this hip downtown world, Gutenbrunner has embraced the fashionable small-plate philosophy, and as a result, the dishes at Thor tend to be reasonably priced, and there are an awful lot of them. The somewhat bewildering menu is divided into multiple sections, with names like “cold plates to start” and “warm plates in the middle,” plus two entrée subsections, one for meat and one for fish. My first meal began with a barrage of cold plates (there are nine in all), including a variety of decent salads (the best being romaine with white anchovies and a poached egg), fresh chunks of hamachi tuna (mingled with slices of even fresher tomatoes), and a fairly standard wheel of foie gras terrine garnished with slices of peach. There are Kumamoto oysters, decked with diced tuna and American caviar; a very nice red-beet terrine encased in a chiffon of goat cheese and horseradish; and a fluffy dome of white-tomato mousse with a thin tuile at its bottom, which seems to dissolve like meringue on the tip of your tongue.
If you’re wondering whether there are many other places to get white-tomato mousse on Rivington Street, the answer would be no, not really. This gulf between Gutenbrunner’s polished seasonal cooking and, say, Guss’ Pickles grows even more pronounced when the warm dishes arrive. I sampled a properly buttery version of potato gnocchi stewed with wild mushrooms and bits of prosciutto, and a light, gourmet lasagne made with fresh salmon. Gutenbrunner’s Austrian roots betray him on the ravioli (a heavy Germanic dumpling filled with bland farmer’s cheese), but the excellent fresh-rolled squid-ink pasta is folded with a rich mixture of squid, fava beans, and tarragon. If you hunger for more starch, there’s also a crackly potato rösti among the side dishes, and a smooth risotto folded in a professional, uptown manner, with mushrooms, and a rich rendition of that Austrian specialty, quark spaetzle, speckled with Greenmarket chives.
At many ambitious restaurants, dinner tends to start off ambitiously, then slowly fizzle as things progress, but at Thor the opposite seems to be true. My duck breast, rolled in thin leaves of Savoy cabbage, was as tender and soft as fine Japanese tuna. There’s a good rack of lamb on the menu (at $23, it’s the most expensive entrée), and a perfectly nice cut of calf’s liver garnished, for added cholesterol value, with a crinkly strip of bacon. For real decadence, however, order the lobster, which is gently poached in the classic David Bouley manner (Gutenbrunner served for several years as the sous-chef at Bouley) and poured with a thick béarnaise sauce sweetened with cherries. Among other seafood dishes, the headless trout is flavored with a few too many giant caper berries, but it’s expertly cooked. Best of all, though, is the monkfish, which Gutenbrunner wraps in big Christo-like strips of crunchy golden potato and plates on a bed of sautéed zucchini, tomatoes, and a hint of thyme.