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North River in the East Village is Worth Fording

North River in the East Village is Worth Fording
Bradley Hawks
Opposites attract: Pork belly fills a coconut vegan doughnut.

As the Hudson River winds its way down to New York Harbor, its waters pass by the craggy cliffs and charming river towns of the Hudson Valley, a meandering gateway to the Atlantic Ocean. The valley has long served as inspiration for city chefs, who rely on foodstuffs from the area's wealth of farms and orchards to cook the local and sustainable small plates that have become de rigueur. North River then, a restaurant whose name comes from an antiquated Dutch moniker for the area of the Hudson that runs along the Palisades, should by all accounts pay homage to its namesake watercourse, but the kitchen makes no claims about where or how it sources its ingredients.

Sometimes flavors shift into pristine focus.

Mostly, owners Colby and Sarah Zito seem to want guests to go with the flow. Perhaps that's why a coconut vegan doughnut, as light and airy as that assemblage of words could ever aspire to, comes split, grilled, and stuffed with soy-marinated pork belly, accented in Southern fashion with pickle slices for needed acidity. It's a mashed-up monstrosity of the Cronut family, but the stunt sandwich works. For actual vegans, the doughnuts are available for dessert at two for $6.

This is a river worth fording, but if the classic adventure game The Oregon Trail has taught us anything, it's that the trip is never an easy one. Wading through a selection of 15 small plates ($7–$17) yields an initial clunker of watery glazed turnips offset by fermented black beans, but then a stroke of good fortune: Roast crawfish sit in briny crustacean butter laced with ramps, the dairy-mellowed alliums muted and musky. Grilled eggplants over white bean purée benefit from the addition of puffed rice and pickled chilies, but they fade away once a jumble of crunchy pig ear ribbons hit the table. Tossed with lime, soy sauce, and chile paste, the porcine candy is sprinked with scallions and sesame seeds. They would make an excellent bar snack enjoyed with one of the restaurant's noteworthy cocktails ($13), like the seasonal milk punch, which for spring toys with the flavors of gin, cucumber, and clarified yogurt for a startling tanginess. North River also serves wonderfully puffy complimentary dinner rolls with saucers of soft butter at the onset of the meal, an appreciated old-school touch for a restaurant with contemporary ambitions.

The chef behind this freewheeling food is Adam Starowicz, a Momofuku Ko, Hearth, and Mas (farmhouse) alumnus. Poised and bespectacled, he looks like the local, sustainable love child of Dan Barber and Wylie Dufresne. His cooking, meanwhile, is understandably an amalgam of his experiences in kitchens that worship at the altar of ingredient provenance and gentle boundary pushing. At the onset, much of Starowicz's menu was peppered with augmented edible Americana, like holiday ham with pineapple and maraschino, and cups of artichoke dip emboldened with Grana Padano and Pecorino Romano cheeses. Some of those touches remain — fried chicken with pickles and biscuit has been downsized from entrée to appetizer; a towering burger, its brisket-and-chuck patty draped with cheddar, weeps caramelized onion mayonnaise. It's served with excellent skin-on fries.

Entrées veer toward safer territory, which winds up being a good thing. A mess of grilled, thinly sliced pork chops receives a rich, grassy lift from scallion butter, onion soubise, and charred baby bok choy whose flavor is so sophisticated it might be mistaken for the adult version. Beyond the expansive cupboard from which Starowicz plucks his ingredients, there's an exploitation of flavor combinations that occasionally shifts into pristine focus. Ocean trout too pulls its flavor from the grill, accenting spicy cilantro gremolata and a bed of coco beans strewn with strands of smoked cabbage. The only faltering step my table encountered among the larger plates was a crispy lamb stew over polenta whose gamy meat would have been better off un-crisped despite an admirable greaseless coating. An island of polenta was likewise overrun by overly piquant olive-spiked jus and brittle shards of rosemary.

Desserts change often, but expect mostly engaging takes on reliable standards. On my visits, there was a rhubarb buckle, its bottom layer of cake moist and dense, as well as above-average German chocolate cake dragged down by something called mint milk. Savory spiced nuts prevented a pecan tart from being overly saccharine, its nuttiness further expressed by a swipe of butternut squash whipped cream on the side. Floating around the table as if pulled by a current, all three disappeared before long, fork trails the only evidence of what had taken place.

 
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