Michael "Buzzy" O’Keeffe is sitting
outside on the terrace of The River Cafe feeding pieces of hand-buttered
country bread to Jackie and Wales, his matching Jack Russell
"Have you tried this bread? It’s excellent. So is this butter. It’s the best. Very pure," says O’Keeffe.
Apparently the twins eat very well.
The finest bread and butter are small but important details in what makes up The River Cafe, O’Keeffe’s venerable restaurant, long considered the jewel in the crown of fine Brooklyn dining establishments. This month, the restaurant, which juts out onto the East River, celebrates its first quarter century.
"I use a digital recorder all day," O’Keeffe tells me, pulling one from the pocket of his navy blue blazer. "Little reminders: fix the umbrellas; polish the brass; the bus boy’s pants are too long. It’s all in the details." The details add up to what O’Keeffe considers The River Cafe’s "special experience. We have to do things above and beyond to create an escape for our diners."
The escape begins at the entrance to the cafe’s grounds where a cobblestone walk flows into a garden. Winding paths flanked with benches weave through the park-like setting abloom with flowers and shaded with lush trees.
"I’ve been into flowers since I was a kid. I was always very aesthetic," says O’Keeffe. "My mother’s friend was a florist for the foremost restaurant of that time Le Pavillon. I helped her carry flowers into the restaurant’s basement on 57th and Park in Manhattan. Henri Soule, the owner, was the man who first brought beautiful flowers to the table. We try to recreate that beauty here."
O’Keeffe’s love for flowers is evident throughout the cafe. Stepping into the restaurant’s vestibule one is met with the fresh, green scent of a fine florist’s shop, and a greenhouse worth of softly lit potted plants and baskets of lilies. On each table in the main dining room are full bouquets of fresh, peach-colored roses.
And then, there’s the view.
During the day the room feels tranquil with the shimmering sunshine on the East River reflecting off the room’s mirrored walls, and flat out glamorous in the evening when the twinkling lights of Lower Manhattan are in full view from any of the 130 seats.
"I was coming home from the Army, driving along the BQE," O’Keeffe begins the story of the cafe’s evolution. "I looked over and saw this," he says, gesturing toward the boats slowly cruising along the river and the unencumbered view of the skyline. "I was absolutely stunned. I got off at this detour and this [the ground where the River Cafe sits] was a parking lot. A kind of lovers’ lane. Priests came here to pray. Rabbis. The place just had a magic about it."
O’Keeffe found the spot he was looking for to build "the kind of beautiful waterfront restaurant I admired in Italy and Monte Carlo." Few people shared his vision. "Everyone, hundreds of people, told me I was crazy - absolutely crazy to come to Brooklyn."
It was the late 1960s when O’Keefe began making plans. Every bank declined to extend a loan; naysayers whispered rumors of mob corruption in the neighborhood; and naval architects gave the thumbs down to erecting the cafe on wooden barges. "A lot of naval architects were telling me that the way I wanted to build - it couldn’t be done. I proved them wrong," O’Keeffe says with satisfaction.
It took 12 years of teeth gnashing and bureaucratic haggling before The River Cafe opened its doors in 1977.
"Even after we opened," says O’Keeffe "the deliverymen who brought all our exotic materials - the foie gras, the fine wines, all the special produce - were afraid to come here. They thought there were people here with spears on the side of the road. Of course it was perfectly safe."
Once opened, The River Cafe’s reputation for a swoon-inducing view, its emphasis on American cuisine, just coming into vogue at that time, and an international wine list with an eclectic selection of bottles, quickly made the cafe a draw for sophisticated diners.
The cafe’s popularity is due in large part to O’Keeffe’s ability to lure culinary talent into his kitchen. A hit parade of superstar chefs can be counted among the cafe’s alumni including David Burke, Charlie Palmer, Rick Laakkonen and Larry Forgione. It was under O’Keeffe’s tutelage that Forgione honed his much-applauded nouvelle-American dishes.
"Larry wanted to cook French," says O’Keeffe "but I steered him into American cooking."
He adds, "I was one of the first restaurateurs to preach nutrition. I told Larry that he had to take nutrition into consideration. We squeeze fresh orange and fresh grapefruit juices everyday. We use butter, but we use a little bit. I’ve told my chefs a teaspoon of butter would fry a trout just as well as a quarter pound."
Executive chef Brad Steelman, once the sous chef for another of O’Keeffe’s waterfront ventures, The Water Club in Manhattan, now oversees the cafe’s kitchen. Steelman’s dinner menu - served in three courses, or as a six-course tasting selection - reflects the same attention to detail that goes into the restaurant’s decor and attentive service.
With access to the finest provisions, Steelman can offer appetizers like prosciutto and melon. In addition to those two ingredients the deceptively simple sounding appetizer includes a curly green called frisee, an herb crepe, feta cheese and a julienne of black truffles. Entrees such as the crisp duck breast with a lavender honey glaze, has an equal number of labor-intensive plate-mates: sauteed cracked pepper spaetzle (a house-made fine German noodle), duck confit (duck meat preserved in its own fat) and a foie gras and fresh cherry jus.
Pastry chef Ellen Sternau complements Steelman’s menu with her own take on the humble-sounding dessert. A milk chocolate cherry tart is accompanied by not one, but three house-made garnishes: fresh mint ice cream, cherry sorbet and mint sauce.
In October 2001, O’Keeffe opened the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory next door to the cafe. Mark Thompson, general manager and ice cream maker, offers eight flavors made with all cream and no eggs. None of the flavors are overly sweet; all have a full-tasting creaminess like rich heavy cream in coffee. The butter pecan is incomparable.
What does the future hold for O’Keeffe and The River Cafe?
"Oh," he shrugged. "We’ll just keep doing what we’re doing. And we’ll keep doing it better."
The River Cafe (1 Water St. at Old Fulton
Street) accepts MasterCard, American Express and Visa. A three-course
dinner is $70; a six course-tasting menu is $90. For reservations
call (718) 522-5200. Web site: www.rivercafe.com.
The Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory (1 Water St. at Old Fulton Street) accepts cash only. Ice cream is priced from $1.50 for a junior cone to $6.50 for a banana split. For information, call (718) 246-3963 or (718) 875-0087.