Ol’ Man River

River keeper: The River Cafe is known for its wonderful views, but chef Brad Steelman's cooking is just as eye-opening.Photo: Kenneth Chen

I know it’s just TV, and I should blow it off the same way a stunned Jack Nicholson is told to “forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown” at the final fade of that noir classic. But I can’t help it—those six installments of The Restaurant bore into my skin like deer ticks, each as infuriating as summer’s latest downpour.

It wasn’t the staged showboating. One now expects a pox of faux crises when television captures “reality.” Nor was it the Gilligan’s Island casting of the staff (pouty, buxom beauty; hapless, doe-eyed fool; rudderless captain). Even the realization that the ostensible hero was increasingly charm-challenged wasn’t all that rattling. Many chefs often appear sexier when they shut up and cook.

No, what was more galling than ketchup on a Peter Luger porterhouse was the shameless, even gleeful, lack of professionalism flaunted at every level of Rocco’s creation. As if any chef worth his fleur de sel would hire a cadre of petulant clowns to serve his wares, entrust his untested kitchen to go it alone from day one, and hope that customers would care more about kissing the alleged cook than licking their fingers after eating, simply because star chefs were not only, as Anthony Bourdain declaimed on the show, “hustlers” but irresistible to boot. Tyra Banks’s America’s Next Top Model was not only more entertaining, it offered more validity.

Restaurants that last are forged out of pride, passion, and flexibility, with skill at least as vital as a hotline to a press agent. When surrounded by a restaurant that hums with professionalism, you want to drop your shoulders, sigh with eyes half-closed, and smile. It’s an experience so relaxing (in case you’ve forgotten) that it can seem jarring. So might the suggestion to dine at the River Café.

Its chef is rarely photographed flanked by Tuleh-wearing lovelies in Gotham magazine. It hasn’t had a major redo in 25 years. And it’s routinely dismissed as a place for tourists wanting a room with a view. But when was the last time you tried it? Even allowing for Mayor Bloomberg’s misguided extinguishing of the necklaces of lights spanning the East River crossings, the panorama from under the Brooklyn Bridge produces a blasé-busting, hyperventilating rush of civic pride. Dining on the comfortably lounge-lit floating barge, simply decorated to defer to the obvious visual splendor, with a pianist who cannily plinks instead of plunders, is like living in a Woody Allen movie—one of the wonderful ones, with all the Gershwin, and the specter of looming lechery replaced by the possibility of a happy ending.

Do your part to play along, and nothing at the River Café will dispel the illusion. The staff is smart, attentive, and blessedly innocent of the huckstering and bum’s rushing that often characterize staples of the tourist circuit. The current, unheralded chef is Brad Steelman, and he appears neither jaded nor coasting, nor desperate to be loved for anything but his cooking. His crispy Pacific oysters wrapped in fruitwood-smoked salmon are certainly worthy of affection. The same goes for scallop seviche with sea beans and coriander, a rich terrine of foie gras with ginger-infused plums, and shredded suckling pig atop substantial gnocchi in a pea purée. Among the appetizers, in fact, only roasted shrimp mystifyingly unaffected by either pineapple, jalapeño, or tangerine hollandaise and an unexpectedly tame buffalo steak tartare render you more interested in a ferry arriving dockside.

Pairing sweet cod fillet in brash green gazpacho with soft-shell crab stuffed with lobster meat brings you back to feeling like it’s your ship that has come in, as may an unfussily roasted Colorado lamb porterhouse on a dense bed of creamed spinach. There is no mistaking the star in any of Steelman’s entrées. Duck breast is pan-roasted golden as schnitzel and encircled by a cherry jus and caramelized salsify. Squab is deeply glazed and barbecued in mesquite honey. Veal loin is plentiful yet flattened by the combination of red-wine sauce and sheep’s-milk ravioli, but a sirloin is just what it should be, with mushroom ragout and mascarpone polenta—just what you might not expect.

The best desserts are all-American—strawberry shortcake, bananas Foster, Key-lime-and-bing-cherry soufflé, and chocolate marquise (though it sounds foreign, it’s in the shape of the Brooklyn Bridge). In this setting, at this time, they work. Plus the three-course prix fixe harbors but one “addt. suppl.” (for the steak) and includes regular coffee. So completely satisfying were my visits to the River Café that I got halfway across the bridge before I realized I hadn’t smooched the chef. Sorry, Brad. At least you earned it.

Okay, we were taken in by Rocco’s mom. How could you not be? Such a sweet lady, busting her tuchis every day rolling those damn meatballs. But a woman her age deserves a rest! Let others carry on with tradition. Which brings us to the reopened Box Tree. The tradition being passed on here is not the Molièrean fustiness with which its creator and original proprietor, Augustin Paege, commandeered his florid temple to Art Nouveau and arch feyness. Instead, the new yarmulke-wearing owners have rechristened (you should pardon the expression) the Box Tree as the fanciest, shmanciest glatt-kosher restaurant in town. And you know something? Like Levy’s bread, you don’t have to be Jewish … You’ll like it here because it’s good. Not only is the cooking as solid as my late Aunt Doris’s flanken, but you won’t get heartburn—and it’s not what you think. Hearty portions of Peking duck, côte de boeuf, and seared Thai-basil tuna. Excellent roast Cornish game hen and pistachio-crusted Chilean sea bass. Plus specialties from the sushi chef. The staff is also a pleasure. They honor Paege’s penchant for formal pampering but have jettisoned the obsequious Sir in favor of a warm My friend … L’Shoneh Tovah, to them, and to you. In the New Year, may we all live, and eat, amid peace … and professionalism.

River Cafe
1 Water Street, Brooklyn; 718-522-5200.

Box Tree
250 East 49th Street; 212-758-8320.

The River Café, 1 Water Street, Brooklyn (718-522-5200). Lunch, noon to 3 p.m. daily. Dinner, 5:30 to 11 p.m. daily. Three-course prix fixe: $70. All major credit cards.

Box Tree, 250 East 49th Street (212-758-8320). Lunch, Monday through Friday noon to 2 p.m. Dinner, Monday through Thursday 5 to 11 p.m. Appetizers, $13 to $19; entrées, $26 to $54. All major credit cards.

Ol’ Man River