What could be better than a glimpse of the sun as it waves goodbye over the skyscrapers of Jersey City? Then, the light refracted in spectacular fashion, it casts a pink and then a purple glow over the water, as the waves lap at your feet and tour boats drift by, sound systems thumping. Yet this Hudson River view has been generally unavailable to restaurant-goers, except at a few points on the West Side, including the Frying Pan (a couple of boats tied up at 26th Street), and Pier i Cafe (an outdoor collection of tables seasonally operated at 70th Street). Which is why excitement ran so high when a sprawling, two-story structure began to rise in Hudson River Park at Pier 26 in the summer of ’13. Unfortunately, the place was slow to finish, and sat idle for a pair of summers.
Well, better late than never, because the place — evocatively called City Vineyard — has finally debuted, with only a month or two of summer left. Clad implacably in metals, with artificial vines climbing the exterior walls, the structure comprises two stories and over 3,000 square feet. In addition to the all-weather indoor part, there’s also a terrace in front, and a rooftop seating area that could swallow the other two. All furnish spectacular views of the mighty river, which is two miles wide here.
The real estate was leased by City Winery, an establishment on Varick Street with self-made vintages on tap and a stage for presentation of live shows, musical and otherwise. I went to its new river offshoot City Vineyard with a handful of friends around sunset to check it out. It was a Monday evening around 8 p.m., and the place was mainly empty. At our request we were seated on the rooftop terrace, the better to watch the sunset. Gradually, as night fell, the roof filled up. When we left around 9:30 p.m., it was nearly thronged.
"They’re really not knocking themselves out as far as food goes," one friend observed, looking at a menu that contained nine savory dishes and one dessert, priced from $7 for a small bowl of olives to $18 for a daily ceviche to $23 each for a pair of platters, one charcuterie, the other cheese. The food menu was marked Preview, even though an earlier preview period had ended. Why not put the premises in full swing, haven’t we waited long enough? The draft wine list was similarly slender, with vineyards in California, Oregon, and Upstate New York providing the grapes. All of the City Vineyard wines were on tap. Seventeen bottles from domestic and European makers were also available, plus a few beers and cocktails.
We chose a bottle of Prosecco from Drusian ($48). It proved the perfect thing, furnishing bubbles to tickle the nose as the sky turned darker and darker. The viands, however, proved disappointing, not so much for the quality as for the small quantity. A plate of romanesco dip — pureed red pepper and nuts, from a Catalan recipe — came with a few carrot stalks, wedges of pocket pita, and three little flowerets of romanesco cauliflower. While the cheese platter was uninspired in terms of selection (the server couldn’t tell us what they were), the charcuterie fared a little better, with four slices of pepperoni, considerably more coarse-grained salami, and a couple of rolled up slices of prosciutto. One would not have complained if this assortment had cost $10 or $15, perhaps as an incentive to drink more wine. But at $23 it was overpriced.
I won’t go into the paltry assortment of olives or the unassertive kale salad. Suffice to say every place has one. It’s the law. I went another day to try the tap wine and some menu selections that hadn’t been tried earlier. A glass of Riesling from New York State (Finger Lakes?) grapes lacked subtlety, but was refreshing with a nice straw color, while a Cabernet Sauvignon made with Mendocino grapes seemed to benefit from their equally picturesque growing location, with a harsh edge and assertive fruitiness. Really, at City Vineyard you’re paying for a splendid location; the high prices and slightly lower food quality are a given. If you want great food, bring a picnic, sit in the grass, and cradle a surreptitious bottle of really good wine.
A Further Observation
On a foggy Sunday evening, I was contemplating a glass of wine and a not-bad shrimp ceviche ($18) made with pineapple and jalapenos. The place was under-attended and overstaffed, perhaps because of the looming weather. Nevertheless, despite sporadic drizzle the indoor seating area was closed, and patrons made to sit on the rooftop or front terrace, mainly tourists willing to suffer a slight dampness for the view. Some were dressed in raincoats. Suddenly, the sky opened up. And the waitstaff, almost as one person, abandoned their stations and ran inside the restaurant, giggling, then stood staring out at the patrons. Finally, after a few minutes, one of the waiters stuck his head out the door and invited me inside. When I was seated at an indoor table, I heard one employee ask another, "Are there still customers sitting on the roof?" The reply: "I don’t know, but I’m not going up there to find out."