It’s always a welcome sight when the owner of a restaurant greets patrons as they enter. At the East River Café on the corner of First Ave. and 61st St. at the foot of the Queensboro Bridge, Sam Morcos is usually sitting at the end of the well-known copper bar just inside the door.
Morcos, who is Egyptian but steeped in Mediterranean cooking, has been open for more than 15 years, another good sign. In New York, restaurants have to offer something special or they don’t survive for very long.
The East River Café has three specialties: its ambiance, its active bar scene and mid-priced Italian-Mediterranean food that ranges from carpaccio, blackened tuna, and veal with mushroom truffle sauce to pastas like capellini with tomatoes, and penne with broccoli rape and sweet Italian sausage.Sam offers patrons a welcoming handshake as they enter the restaurant and the décor is welcoming as well. It’s a lush pallet of washed peach, marine blue and rich umber.
The bar serves up its own specialty drinks such as Chocolate or Orange/Blue Curacao Martinis, and famed pianist Irving Fields plays on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
The layout is long and narrow, typical of a Brownstone restaurant.
The bar runs down the front left, across from a double row of tables. An elevated platform with more tables in the back of the room can be closed off with curtains for private parties.
Behind the bar is another row of tables in a more intimate setting. The restaurant seats 80 people in all and can seat parties of up to 30 for private dinners.
Because of its location, the restaurant usually draws patrons from the surrounding neighborhood, but more and more tourists, repelled by high-priced midtown restaurants, are finding their way there. It pays to travel a little off the beaten path for real New York-style dining and the East River Café is conveniently located only a couple of blocks from the Lexington Avenue subway stop at 59th Street.
Newcomers will usually find a bevy of regular customers, Sam at the door, a pleasant and efficient wait staff and white tablecloth dining at some of the best prices in Manhattan.
Plus, all of the food, from bread to dessert is made on the premises. Sam also serves as executive chef and many of the dishes are based on family recipes.
For openers, salads range from $7 to $9 and are interesting takes on the usual mix of greens. The Insalata Ai Lamponi, for example, includes Feta cheese, Arugula, and fresh raspberries in a lemon vinaigrette. The spinach salad (Insalata di Spinaci) includes the usual bacon, plus potatoes, artichoke hearts and goat cheese.
Appetizers range from $11 to $14 and feature such dishes as Vongole al Forno, traditional style baked clams. One of the specialties is Bamberi allo Spiedo, which is shrimp wrapped in prosciutto with sage, cannellini beans, avocado and mango.
From the pasta menu Orecchiette Barese, another house specialty, includes Italian sausage and broccoli rabe in a garlic white wine sauce for $14. Topping the menu at $22 is Tortelloni D’Aragosta, a home-made pasta stuffed with lobster in a Fra’ Diavio sauce with shrimp.
Yet another specialty is the restaurant’s home-made Gnocchi, which is a soft dumpling usually served as a main course in a variety of sauces from Pomodori Gnocchi in pesto, brie and cream sauce ($14) to Mezza Notte Gnocchi with shrimp and zucchini in a bisque sauce ($20).
Main courses include fish, chicken, veal, Cornish game hen, pork, duck and steaks, all of which are served with their own special touches. The fresh tuna, (Tonno Magico) for example, comes with an aromatic crust of Grand Marnier and orange mango sauce with spinach and crispy sweet potatoes on the side.
The sautéed veal scaloppini comes with a Shitaki mushroom Cognac sauce and the roasted breast of duck comes in a berry sauce. Steak Sinatra is a prime aged rib-eye sautéed with Porcini mushrooms. And, the filet mignon is served in a truffle sauce. All of the dishes are under $30.
Last year, the restaurant renewed its lease for another 10 years, so the East River Café isn’t going anywhere soon. The Upper East Side restaurant also offers outdoor dining, carry out and a separate bar menu in addition to their lunch and dinner menu.
So stop by and say hello to Sam. He’ll be sure to see that you are treated to all you expect from a white tablecloth restaurant that won’t break the bank.