Two years ago, when Michael Sherman completed his cooking apprenticeships at several of the city’s most famous kitchens-among them Lespinasse, Bouley, Aureole and March-he decided, like so many impatient young culinarians, to open his own restaurant.
“I looked at all of the boroughs in the city and discovered a huge void-in the Bronx,” Mr. Sherman recalled. “So I thought, ‘Well, no competition-that sounds pretty good to me.'”
Indeed, there was little, if any. Every once in a while, a promising spot opens in a far-flung section of the Bronx, but hardly any endure. And for all of their sentimental appeal, Arthur Avenue’s restaurants are little better than ordinary.
Mr. Sherman planted his flag in the bosky environs of Riverdale-which, demographically speaking, bears about as much resemblance to the greater borough as does a shiny Mercedes to a decade-old Honda.
Mr. Sherman and his wife, Lisa, a pastry chef, came across a nondescript building-a former bodega-near the Manhattan College campus and set about creating a small French-American bistro called the Riverdale Garden.
The main dining room is charming and rustic, with an exposed brick wall, tile floor, beamed ceiling and a little wood stove in the rear. All about are charcoal sketches and paintings that look as if they came from a college art class. Little cast-iron ceiling lanterns with amber shades cast a warm and flattering light. At the entrance, concealed by a wall, is a small private dining room that includes a bar, with banquettes and tables that accommodate about 30.
In warm weather, guests can dine on a leafy two-tier terrace that enjoys a sweeping view of a subway car depot.
The menu, which the chef tweaks daily, is homey and inviting, with a particular emphasis on game-wild boar, ostrich, venison and elk. I sampled the rack of wild boar, three dark and meaty chops-more succulent than today’s lean-bread pork chops-that were faintly sweetened with carob molasses. Along with it came good, cheesy grits, braised cardoons (reminiscent of celery but slightly sweeter) and cocoa nibs, which are roasted cocoa beans separated from their husks and broken into small bits. Another good choice is the loin of lamb marinated in rosemary and garlic. Breast of duck was tender but a little too rare for me (our waitress whisked it away and returned with an entirely new dish in about four minutes).
The seafood is pleasing as well. A pistachio crust contributed a nice texture and a bit of sweetness to a meaty Arctic char without blunting its flavor; saffron onions with kale were a good wintry accompaniment. Lemony sea bass was well cooked and enhanced with a rosemary brown butter sauce along with butternut squash.
Some of the young servers, who look like sophomores at the college, can get flustered at times and resort to auctioning food at the table or disappearing when you need them. However, their forgivable shortcomings are compensated for with genuine charm.
The limited but fairly-priced wine list is arranged by grape variety. Some of the better values are, in white, the fresh and dry 2003 St.-Veran Pouilly-Fuissé, Auvigue ($32) and the 2003 Sancerre, Domaine de la Perrière ($34); in reds, there is the full-bodied 2003 pinot noir from Au Bon Climat, from California ($42), and the vibrant 2001 Château Gloria, from Bordeaux ($39).
Appetizers are compelling. You’d do well to start with one of the daily changing soups: a restorative and well-seasoned creamless turnip purée, or a rich lobster-and-chestnut blend drizzled with olive oil. Two other cold-weather specials that can be recommended are the lusty agnolotti stuffed with highly spiced lamb and tossed with garlic-accented wilted spinach, and the rosy slab of foie gras ringed by cubes of ripe pear.
Lisa Sherman turns out an appealing roster of homey all-American desserts, like her hefty banana-bread pudding with butterscotch ice cream, and a fine lemon tart. The most popular sweet appears to be the chocolate trio, a will-breaking assortment of extra-thick chocolate pudding served in a tall narrow glass, a warm chocolate cake and white-chocolate ice cream. Another specialty is her tart-like apple streusel.
If the Riverdale Garden were in the West Village or Soho, it might quietly blend into the landscape and acquire its own loyal following. In Riverdale, however, it’s as conspicuous as the college bell tower-and a sizable gift to the Bronx.