Many new restaurants, it seems, are in the thrall of the primal visual appeal of combustion. Places like Dusek's and the recently reviewed Promontory, to name two, feature prominently placed open blazes in their dining rooms and flames applied directly to plenty of dishes, not to mention the indirect application that, for better or worse, ends up saturating much of the food. Chefs aren't able to smoke cigarettes in their own restaurants anymore, and they're taking it out on everything from lettuce to sashimi to vermouth.
River Roast is at it now too. The Levy Restaurants behemoth's answer to the shuttered Fulton's on the River is by appearances a chummy collaboration between Spiaggia jefe Tony Mantuano and former Keefer's chef John Hogan. It remains a huge space, boasting a patio that hovers just above the river and far below the towering skyline, providing one of the most tremendous al fresco views in the city.
The centerpiece of the menu is a trio of high-ticket hunks of roasted meat: a whole chicken, a whole fish, and eight-ounce portions of sliced beef sirloin. The shtick, as servers will spiel, is to replicate a Rockwellesque Sunday dinner—they'll even roll carts tableside to carve them up daddy-style after you say grace. More on those later.
What's particularly interesting about the food at River Roast isn't these pricey family-style showpieces, but the array of diverse small plates and sides, some in the spirit of the tide of meaty gastropubbery that swept through years ago, such as a loosely jacketed Scotch egg, or a lush, fatty, crispy-edged panfried headcheese cake, or a variety of dense, meaty terrines, which Hogan is particularly skilled at making. Others are a bit more original, like a seared Wagyu "Chicago-style sashimi" featuring manipulated twists on all the fixings of the garden on a bun, or a haunch of country-fried rabbit with thick honey-drizzled batter and flesh so juicy it gets my vote for the best fried chicken in the city right now.
You discover Hogan smoking trout and the ketchup served with fried squash blossoms, but where I found it most appealing was in a dish of artichokes barigoule, cooked in white wine with bacon. It would be easy to make these tender vegetables taste like a chimney brush; instead their soft flesh is gently suffused with wood smoke, countered by a dollop of creamy goat cheese.
The fire also works wonders on the charred Treviso radicchio salad, the bitter purple leaves sprinkled with chopped hard-cooked eggs, capers, and anchovies. It's a power salad, not for the aged or infirm, and it's among many inventive dishes that show this restaurant isn't afraid to challenge diners.
This extends to a number of vegetable sides like prosciutto-wrapped leeks or charred curried cauliflower, and in particular to a sweet-corn succotash that has a hint of fermented tang hidden somewhere among the kernels, beans, and peppers, or a simple crock of mushrooms that taste more like chicken than the star of the show does.
Which brings me to the unhappy news that two out of the three roasts are the most disappointing things upon the menu. All are served with some very likable crispy potatoes, first fried, then roasted, which provide an appropriately starchy backup for communal meals that don't deliver on their asking price. Served upright on a spit, the chicken is especially puzzling: its legs, blackened by flame, are dry and pull apart like jerky, while the breast meat is devoid of any sort of moisture to remind you that it was once a living being. At $39, it's a galling thing to do to a bird.
The flames don't treat the fish much more kindly. In my case I chose a roasted branzino rather than the alternative—fried and mounted like something caught on vacation. Its blackened skin was painted with creosote, while the delicate white flesh had had all the life chased out of it. As with the chicken, a $42 bet on a fish so sorely overcooked is a hard loss to take.
The beef, on the other hand—shimmery red slabs with a salty crust, served with a sharp horseradish butter—is evidence that the kitchen isn't just playing with fire. If only the fish and the fowl were treated with such kindness. There's plenty to like at River Roast, beginning with grilled bread with a Gruyere spread and perhaps finishing with an icy, bitter bourbon-and-Fernet swizzle alongside a dark-chocolate pot de creme. But right now the fire—the very heart of this restaurant—is out of control.