Fans, patrons from around the globe Come back to Brooklyn to greet Buzz
By Lore Croghan
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The devastation dealt by Hurricane Sandy created many thousands of recovery stories in the metropolitan area, some small and personal, others sweeping and corporate, like the rebuilt Fairway in Red Hook.
But throughout the 14 months since that “Perfect Storm” hit, perhaps no recovery has been as poignant, and well, precious, as that of Michael (Buzz) O'Keeffe and the iconic River Cafe.
The tempest-tossed restaurant reopened on New Year's Day – when Buzz, a self-described perfectionist, was ready to unveil its rebuild.
Guests thronged the dining room with its dazzling views of Lower Manhattan's skyscrapered shoreline and the steel-gray waters of the East River, which did such dire damage the night Sandy came to town.
“I've been here every day for 14 months,” Buzz told the Brooklyn Eagle as diners began showing up. “It feels the same, except there are people here and we can serve them.”
He had originally hoped to re-open the River Cafe last June, but reconstruction was slower than anticipated. So many details to deal with – from cherry-wood paneling made at a shop in Pennsylvania to lamps crafted by Brooklyn artisans. New marble for the bathroom walls wasn't quite right. He had them redone three times.
It took time for it all to come together – and meet his exacting standards.
Dinner service at the famed River Cafe will start soon, by Feb. 1 at the latest, said Buzz – who spent a scary part of the night of the hurricane hanging onto a fire hydrant on the road under the FDR near the Water Club, his Manhattan restaurant.
As of June, he had spent an estimated $3 million on the River Cafe renovation. What's the final tally?
“I don't even know,” he said.
He's got insurance – but the payback comes after the work is done.
The killer 'cane ravaged the much-loved waterfront restaurant, which is on a barge perched on pilings in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. Raging floodwaters ruined almost everything, from $10,000 bottles of Petrus to a Steinway piano made especially for the River Cafe.
Opened in 1977 when Fulton Ferry Landing was a grim place, the River Cafe became a magnet that drew diners from all over the world to Brooklyn – even those who otherwise refused to set foot in the borough.
It was dubbed “The Restaurant That Launched a Thousand Chefs” by The New York Times in 2001 because it produced high-profile maestros of the kitchen such as Larry Forgione – who coined the term “free-range chicken” while at the River Cafe.
Patrons who have felt its closure keenly were thrilled to see it back in business.
“I missed it terribly,” said John O'Keefe, a Brooklyn Heights resident (no, he's not a relative of Buzz's – their names are spelled differently).
“I love this place,” O'Keefe said. “I love Buzzy – I think he's a genius.”
Others who shared the day with Buzz included Maimonides Medical Center CEO Pamela Brier, her husband Peter Aschkenasy, who owned now-departed Brooklyn landmark restaurant Gage & Tollner and Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation director Joanne Witty.
Some diners came from as far away as Austin, Texas and Taiwan.
The staff was eager to get back down to business.
“It's been tough,” said Executive Chef Brad Steelman, who has been at the River Cafe for 14 years.
“We were used to going 365 days a year – then we came to a screeching halt.”
Steelman has nightmarish memories of the storm surge that washed into the cafe.
“The next day, a fish was swimming in the dining room,” he recalled.
“We're looking to get going again. We were a pioneer here for many years. We want to be back.”
The post-hurricane launch was brunch, and it was spectacular. Omelettes had Perigord truffles shaved onto them at diners' tables. The prized French delicacy costs $750 a pound this year, Steelman said.
Pancakes were topped with chocolate that looked like a ribbon of gold.
Melt-in-your mouth steak tartare that had been chopped by hand was sprinkled with crushed capers, fresh chives, “sweated” shallots, a touch of Dijon mustard and bits of cognac jelly.
The River Cafe's popular signature dessert – chocolate mousse cake that's a miniature replica of the Brooklyn Bridge – was served.
Wednesday was the first day that Richard Kimball, who has been a pianist at the restaurant for 35 years, tickled the ivories of a new Steinway that replaced its storm-struck predecessor.
“I had some trepidation,” he confessed before sitting down to play. “I haven't been working much; I've been composing.”
He has a repertoire developed over the decades that he uses only at the cafe – and he can't play it anywhere else.
“I feed off the vibe of the room. At home it isn't the same,” he explained.
In case you're wondering, when diners were seated and the hum of conversation rose in the room, his playing sounded perfect.
“It's great to be back,” said bartender Gary Chase, who has worked at the River Cafe for five years.
“After I took a few breaths and heard the piano, it was emotional.”
Pots of roses that served as table centerpieces were arranged by in-house florist Maureen Andariese, who has worked at the River Cafe for more than 20 years.
“I'm so happy for Buzz,” she said.
“He has put so much effort into the development of this whole area. There should be a statue of him.”
As part of the rebuild, Buzz improved the layout of the kitchen. One new feature is a climate-controlled chocolate room for crafting sinfully tasty desserts. The temperature will probably be set at 68 degrees. (A little experimentation will be done to determine the exact number.)
“It used to be 100 degrees in here when we were trying to do chocolate work,” said pastry chef Karen McGrath. “It will be much different.”
During brunch one of the guests who had come up from Delaware, Carter Schelling, brought the dining room to silence by tapping his glass.
“We don't know each other,” he said to the crowded room, “but we all know and love our host.”
He then led a toast to Buzz, citing the restaurateur's rare dedication to “beauty and quality above all, without regards to time, cost or personal sacrifice.”
All present, who had undoubtedly loved the original River Cafe, raised their glasses to affirm that the restored version surpassed all hopes and expectations.
After that another diner, Jacqueline Siben, raised her glass to Buzz for keeping the River Cafe staff together despite the lengthy reconstruction period.
“In my opinion, this is still the best restaurant experience in the world,” Siben's husband, David Manning, told the Eagle.
A native Canadian who now works for the Consulate General of Canada, he knew the River Cafe intimately during his years as executive vice president and chief environmental officer for KeySpan and later National Grid, headquartered in Brooklyn.
“It's the people,” Manning said. “It's Buzzy himself.”