Not like we’re all “woe is me,” but when your job description largely revolves around discovering new restaurants, it’s entirely too easy for solid, established spots to fall swiftly off of your radar. (Yeah, we know; break out the world’s tiniest violin.) And after a recent follow-up visit that (we’re ashamed to admit it!) was a year-and-a-half in the making, it was a pleasure to get reacquainted with River Styx, the sophomore project from Roebling Tea Room’s talented, self-made chef, Dennis Spina. But don’t bother pulling out the violin for the Greenpoint eatery either, which—despite being the sole resident on the final, forsaken street leading up to the East River—is still perfectly well-trafficked by lucky, in-the-know locals.
While there’s a noticeable Italian bent to the menu, just like at rough-and-ready Roebling (where, 10 years ago, he effectively helped position Williamsburg as an eclectic, destination dining mecca), Spina is primarily propelled by what he likes to cook. Which, as luck would have it, directly translates to what most of us would like to eat, namely, thick triangles of mozzarella spiedini (the Roman version of grilled cheese) slicked with caper and anchovy butter; nachos bombed with tender chicken tinga, crunchy radishes and bright orange béchamel; and a chewy, spicy, flash-fried calamari/buffalo wing lovechild, cloaked in Clamato and Frank’s Red Hot, forever dubbed (per a former menu typo) as “Squid Suave.”
But you’d be loathe to dismiss this as stoner food; Spina just has a particular aptitude for navigating hi-lo cuisine, and a refreshing aversion to twee.
And in welcome contrast to the ostentatiously terse ingredient lists favored by a particularly precious breed of chefs, his dish descriptions are comically, disarmingly vivid—although you’ll probably need to prompt the waiters for precise definitions of “cracked potatoes,” “psycho fries,” “clams in sticks,” or “anchovies that have been sitting by a fire” (true to form for forthright Spina, it’s anchovies, that have been sitting by a fire). Of course, Roebling aficionados are undoubtedly already acquainted with his infamous “flamingo butter”—a luscious, pink-hued emulsion of shrimp, fish and pork bone stock—delectably showcased in a rich tumble of bucatini, “December pesto,” bacon, and kale.
So basically, it’s our bad for sleeping on River Styx for so long—because in the age of instantly categorizable, yawn-inducing farm-to-table-numbers, Spina’s inimitable, highly personal restaurant is more than worth a second look, and (hopefully, in the not-too-distant future for us), perhaps even a third, fourth and fifth.
21 Greenpoint Avenue, Greenpoint