I just had what was probably the best meal of the year at The River Street Cafe, a pioneer in an area of downtown Troy that is now part of a vibrant restaurant/nightlife scene, in almost complete solitude. My companion Virginia and I were the only diners.
“Sometimes it’s like that,” our server said. “Weekends can be mobbed.” My question is, if the food is this good, why isn’t it mobbed all the time?
We walked in through the front door, where a few tables take what space the kitchen doesn’t. “Do you have reservations?” a booming voice asked. We allowed we didn’t, a bit nervously, and the owner of the voice replied in a more measured way: “Don’t worry, I just need to know how to coordinate the potatoes.” We both cook; we knew exactly what he meant.
A charming, smiling woman wearing an ankle-length crisp white apron over a black uniform led us upstairs to the main dining room. “You can sit wherever you like,” she said, waving her arm to indicate the whole, empty, glorious space.
Evoking the ’80s
There’s something about the dining room at River Street Cafe with its rugged exposed brick walls and wood and green plant decor that is very 1980s, but in a good way. It feels prosperous, sophisticated, urbane. French doors open at the front and the back of the building allowed a gentle breeze to pass through, along with birdsong and some traffic noise.
River Street Cafe
WHERE: 429 River St., Troy, 273-2740, riverstreetcafetroy.com
WHEN: 5:30 until closing Tuesday through Saturday
HOW MUCH: $84.93, with tax and tip
MORE INFO: Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa. Parking in public lot next door or on street. Accommodations made for children’s meals. Wheelchair accessible. Reservations recommended.
The room became even more charming as the sun went down. In front, the view of the changing leaves on trees going up the hillside on a sunny autumn evening was magical. Behind the building the setting sun was coloring the Hudson salmon and pink. Troy was looking good.
The neighborhood has improved considerably since 1986 when George Schroeter opened his restaurant in the historic building. Once a warehouse and then a cabinet shop, the building is more than 100 years old, not unusual for that part of the city.
The menu is simple as can be, with one steak (a hanger steak, market price), one selection each of duck, chicken, pasta, pork and then several kinds of seafood. There were three fish specials that night. Dinner prices were in the mid-to high 20s. There was a pizza appetizer with hot Italian sausage, joined by spicy shrimp, Korean meatballs, and French onion soup, among other starters.
“A lot of things on the menu look spicy,” fretted Virginia. No worries, said the server. “The spiciness means flavor, not heat,” she assured her. We put in our orders, portobello meatloaf for Virginia, spicy Korean pork for me.
Our server brought me a frosty glass of SeaGlass Sauvignon Blanc ($7) and fresh decaf ($2.50) for Virginia. Then, slices of fresh, flour-dusted ciabatta bread and sweet butter, and “a complimentary pasta appetizer,” our server said, setting the swirled pile of gingery thin pasta topped with sesame seeds and chopped peanuts on the table between us.
The sauce was sweet and sour and pleasant and there were lots of chunks of fresh peeled red September tomato. We each had a small serving, then another, and finally put down our forks, although we could have easily polished it off.
Salads were next, civilized, bite-sized pieces of Romaine with baby greens and bits of carrot dressed with garlic chive mustard champagne vinaigrette. I know that mustard is often used in salad dressing because it is an emulsifier, that is, it holds the oil and vinegar together, but I was disappointed because I don’t like mustard a bit. But it was nicely balanced, with a bit of sweetness that cut the mustard tang.
The dressing was delicious and both Virginia and I finished every bit of our salads. River Street Cafe gets points for only using the parts of the lettuce that people actually want to eat.
Virginia commented on the prices. “When you look at the website and see the entree prices, you don’t realize that it includes the pasta, bread, and salad.” In other words, at River Street Cafe, you get good value for money. It’s not an entree, it’s an event.
The sun was setting and the room was cozy and dim when our server carried the meals up the big wooden staircase on a wide tray. She expertly handled the hot plates with thick white napkins, cautioning us to take care. Our meals, in generous, expansive white bowls, were accompanied by smashed roasted red skin potatoes. Every bit of it was outstanding.
Virginia ordered the onion and portobello meatloaf ($23), made with beef and pork, a massive slice under a blanket of thick, brown, oniony gravy. There were slices of mushroom and chunks of carrot in the meatloaf, tender and homemade. Nothing fancy, but nothing lacking, either. It was moist and it was delicious.
Doing pork right
My Korean pork ($24) was outstanding. River Street Cafe has done what few restaurants do: produce a pork dish that is moist, interesting and preserves the flavor of the meat. Three slices of boneless roasted pork, usually dry and dreary, were served in a dark, sweet puddle of remarkably flavorful sauce. It wasn’t just salty, or just sweet, it was spicy and both of those as well. There was even a little fat around the edges of the meat, something sorely missed that adds so much flavor.
The meat was almost fork-tender, that in itself an accomplishment. Pork lovers, rejoice. Someone has finally made it into something really good.
“The potatoes are different,” said Virginia, glancing at the family-style serving of lumps of browned, amorphous potatoes on a white plate. They tasted outstanding. That night, red-skinned potatoes were flattened after boiling, and cooked at high heat with olive oil and rosemary. “Then they’re finished under the broiler,” said the server, which explained the crunchy browned tops. They didn’t need salt, they were perfect the way they were. They were the best potatoes I’ve had in I can’t remember how long. This was an extraordinary meal.
The server busied herself behind the bar, clanking bottles and presumably tidying up, since by this point, no one else had shown up in the dining room. “You would hear voices if someone was downstairs,” said Virginia, and she was right. There was no one else to bear witness to this outstanding cooking. I couldn’t believe it.
Desserts to share
Desserts are brought in but are up to the high standards of the rest of the meal. We shared two, a pineapple upside-down cake ($7.50), and an apple-berry tart ($7.50). The pineapple was a bit crispy around the edges where it topped the tiny bundt cake, and of the cake, Virginia said, repeatedly and wonderingly, “It couldn’t be any moister.” There was freshly made caramel, just this much past burnt, which made it smoky, decorating the plate in arcs and fat drops. Cinnamon dusted the wide rim of the plate. A restrained dollop of snowy white whipped cream topped the cake.
We couldn’t decipher the floral, aromatic flavor in the apple-berry tart which added depth and interest to the dessert. The crust was buttery and salty, and flaky and a little bubbly like good pie dough should be, the filling sweet and more about the berries than the apples. But the apple slices were still firm and distinct, sweetened by the liquified berries and enhanced by that elusive flavor.
The server wrapped up our leftovers and brought the check. The tab for our this extraordinary meal with one decaf came to $84.93.
“Where are you parked?” the server enquired as we got up to leave. When we told her the car was on the side of the building, she told us to let ourselves out the back, as the front had already been closed up for the evening. We were still the only patrons in the restaurant.
People should be lining up for this food. Well, at least you know you can get a reservation. So go before everyone else finds out. Enjoy.