Weaned at the side of Jimmy Rodriguez, who turned a Bronx car dealership into one of the top hot spots of the past decade, Ricardo Cardona doesn’t shy away from unconventional locations: His Lua sits on the sleepy northern Hoboken waterfront, his outstanding 809 Sangria Bar on a tough block in Inwood. Completely in character, Cardona’s latest, Hudson River Cafe, is carved into an industrial stretch flanking Washington Heights and Harlem that’s as pastoral as an Escape from New York sequel.
This indoor-outdoor setting is so gritty, it’s actually beautiful, an urban cathedral caustically framed by the dramatic arching steel underpass of Riverside Drive, Amtrak’s elevated tracks and the constant swoosh of the West Side Highway. Fairway’s irreverent scrolling ticker and a highway billboard shilling Shark Week provide color directly overhead. But the best show, weather willing, is the teeming outdoor bar, where packs of revelers booze and dance to a live band, making a humid night under this citified canopy feel like a trip to a decadent Caribbean beach bar.
Whether they’re outside or inside the brand-new duplex with a prefabricated look akin to an Orlando theme restaurant, Cardona expects the tables of scenesters to eat, as well. His other two places successfully integrate notably good Nuevo Latino food into the party. With Hudson River Cafe, Cardona, who also did a stint at the Odeon, gets more expansive, with one of those menus that has a bit of everything (and much of it is pricey). Raw bar and caviar, grilled sirloin, four linguine options, lobster roll: it’s all there—but precious little is very good.
In fairness, precious little is particularly bad. Dish after dish is perfectly edible—and forgettable. Appetizers center on upscale food that’s fun to eat: moist, sweet Wagyu miniburgers on little brioches; a smoked seafood platter that lets you create sandwiches from the likes of pastrami-treated salmon, smoked trout and mussels; chicken, beef and shrimp satay that you’re supposed to reheat over an accompanying flame, rendering these otherwise tasty bites bone dry.
The best appetizer I sampled was a calamari salad, ordered specifically after a crass waiter’s recommendation that “you’ll shit yourself it’s so good.” Think General Tso’s squid, and you get the drift: fried ringlets in a sweet-and-spicy ginger glaze, over sprouts, greens and shaved vegetables. Yes, quite good, if heavy, deftly juxtaposing sugar and heat, softness and crunch. But consider me unsoiled.
My undergarments remained pristine through the entrées as well. Cardona offers both fish and meat paellas, the latter dominated by the lowest common denominators (chicken and sausage that tasted more like kielbasa than the promised chorizo), with the exotic lures (rabbit, serrano ham) either hard to unearth, or in the case of touted truffle oil, impossible to detect. A filet mignon au poivre was too bland, an aggressive brandy mustard sauce shoving aside the peppercorns that should have provided the needed kick.
Cardona also offers six grilled items, Craft-style: Pick your protein, side and sauce. Whether salmon, chicken breast or sirloin, the grilling is simple—a smallish branzino carried a light, uniform char, allowing Cardona’s garlicky chimichurri sauce, which usually works better on red meat, to sing.
Those with a sweet tooth can get their fix with a first-rate ricotta cheesecake dusted with crushed macadamia nuts, or a cloying dulce de leche fondue, accompanied by dipping fruit. But I would recommend drinking in the sugar instead: Cardona’s restaurants know sangria, and neither the red (rioja, Captain Morgan, orange juice) nor the white (chardonnay, Grand Marnier, peach liqueur) disappoint, layering high alcohol content with complex, fruity flavor.
If only the food could be as good. Cardona has until now furthered the dichotomous restaurant-club formula established by his mentor Rodriguez. Hudson River Cafe is a step back, in culinary terms. But the addition of the transporting spot to the neighborhood has elevated the barren stretch to destination status.