The Park Avenue Café
SE corner of Park Avenue and 63rd Street, NYC
Review by Susu & Rosie
The Park Avenue Café is an elegant but comfortable restaurant, not overly impressed with itself or the fuss made about it. It doesn't have to be -- the food is more than impressive enough, and is the brainchild of David Burke, proud graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and winner of awards both large and small in Europe, Japan and the USA. Though all the dishes have a French grandparent, and bear strong marks of classical French technique and training, the menu is pure American without ever wandering toward the often-justifiably maligned "California Cuisine." Former New Yorker magazine food critic Gael Greene once wrote in a review, "I'll bet Chef Burke leaves a little pad of paper beside his bed and scribbles down his dreams: 'include whole nuts AND nutcracker in bread basket' or 'label rare-medium-well done steaks with potato lollipops, fried crisp, in the shapes of cows' or 'hide a truffle UNDER the lid of the milk chocolate crème brulée and decorate it to look like a flower' and other strokes of fancy that somehow make sense in the morning." (We're paraphrasing, but you get the sense of awe and exasperation Ms. Greene felt.)
An example? The restaurant itself takes up a couple of floors in the former Beekman Hotel, now an expensive Upper East Side residence, and that invokes thoughts of bony, hollow-cheeked dowagers in pricey courtier silk suits with snow white coiffeurs, lots of jewelry, white hose, and drawing room furniture. But its a space divided into two airy dining rooms -- the street-level "townhouse" and the half a floor up "flag room," featuring American folk art flags and flag-bearing painting, primitive sculpture, and fun and funky objets (our favorite -- the cast iron pig sitting on a wine refrigerator, a wreath of roses around her neck). It's more sleek New England beach house than dusty Park Avenue hotel. The woods used throughout are light and simply varnished, furniture is solid and comfortable to sit on and at, without that doddering upholstery look that happens so often at expensive places. There is a room manager, as well as the maître d'hôte, and 1.5 waiters per table. When its time to serve or clear, they all help, so there is no clattering of porcelain and silverware, and none of that awful awkwardness of waiting for other people's food to come from the kitchen.
Another example: It never occurred to us that lollipops could be anything but sweet, those hard candy on a stick delights from childhood. Chef Burke turns that notion on its ear. One appetizer consisted of six savory lollipops, two each of three delicate, complimentary flavors: fois gras, salmon mousse, and goat cheese, dipped in a crunchy coating of poppy seeds. These were great enough on their own, but they were served with homemade potato crisps and a miniature bottle of champagne served with a flexi-bendy straw! Delicious, irreverent and fun! There was more than enough to share, with the three of us nibbling and moaning in ecstasy at the "DumDum" shaped treats.
The other great appetizer we imbibed was the salmon and tuna tartare, one of the dishes at solidified Chef Burke's reputation as an innovator and genius when the place opened in the 1990s. The sashimi-fresh fish is diced and stacked in a tall timbale, layered with three types of caviar and a thin layer of crème fraîche and chives for garnish. This was served with chunky potato bread toast, and decorated with a potato wafer. It's hard to emphasize how beautiful and delicious this dish is. Anywhere else, we might not have risked a raw fish dish on a humid, muggy, hot NYC day, but we knew that Burke would ensure our gastric safety, and had no second thoughts. One of us had had the dish years ago and was not to be deterred from sampling it again, in any case!
On to the main course! We all had trouble deciding what to order because it all sounded so good. So we strategized and each ordered something different, for different reasons: the Swordfish Chop (it's another David Burke classic, and we LOVE swordfish); the Veal Chop (another classic, bone-in, and again, something that one of us was dreaming of tasting again); Butter-Poached Lobster (had been invented by the chef at the French Laundry in Napa, California, and was all the rage among foodies. We agreed to order it to find out what the fuss was all about). Side dishes included the simple, but thinking about them set forth Pavlovian responses: David's Mashed Potatoes (whipped, and flavored with basil oil), Creamed Spinach and Leeks, and Wild Mushroom Hash.
The swordfish is simply the most amazing thing we think we've ever had. The beautifully trimmed steak was incredibly flavorful, tender, and juicy -- nothing like anything you can make at home. It was served on a bed of ditalini pasta in a delicate fresh tomato sauce that did not overpower the flavor of the fish. The veal was tender and unlike many other veal dishes, tasted like young beef, as opposed to tasting somewhat like chicken. This succulent cut was served with a corn cake and braised vegetables. The lobster ... well, we know what the fuss is about now! Two tails and two claws came artfully arranged on a bed of crosscut asparagus, corn and other vegetables, and it was so rich and so much that a whole tail was taken home for later. WOW! is the only word that comes to mind, over and over.
The pièce de la resistance of any meal is dessert. Every restaurant of this caliber prides itself on the quality and variety of its desserts. Richard Leach, pastry chef, lets his sense of whimsy match the decor -- fun, funky desserts, superlative flavors, silly constructions. He stated that he likes his desserts to be somewhat "architectural." Now, that's normally a bad thing in our book, but in his case, it works -- Chef Leach's desserts are an experience, letting you deconstruct them, the flavors and textures of your final dish changing as you go.
A prime example of this deconstruction idea: One of us has a penchant for chocolate and hazelnuts in any combination, and might even sell our children for the fine use of these ingredients separately or together. These two key flavors were simply listed on the signature dessert called "Park Avenue Bench." It came as a thick disc of hazelnut mousse base, used like a platform supporting a bench and a lamppost made from dark chocolate strips (glued together with dabs of melted chocolate!) and topped with a white chocolate truffle disguised at the globe lantern of the lamp. You pluck the truffle off the lamppost and pop in your mouth ... then you break apart the street lamp, eating it like strips of the best candy bar ever ... then you dig into the hazelnut "turf" with it's dark cookie base ... Heavenly! (The park bench was put aside and brought home for a snack later!)
Raspberry Crème Brulée was served in two bowls, the first containing that classic custard dessert with a nice, thick, crunchy crust of melted sugar. The second was a warm compote of raspberries, which made them taste even more raspberryish than raw and fresh. You could eat them together, or separately, one after the other. Or alternate. The simply named Chocolate Box was a straightforward one: a thin-walled coffin of dark chocolate filled with espresso mocha mousse. By now, you know that what is see is just not quite what you get. You can almost imagine what that was like, knowing the quality and artistry of this restaurant!
As can be expected, the staff is friendly and service is impeccable, practical and not at all servile or overbearing. They never came by when we were mid-chew to ask, "Everything okay here?" (a severe pet peeve for some of us!) We did have to test them with a crisis situation: we asked to change tables mid-course because a table near us consisted of eight adults, one bored toddler and a baby. The adults were happy to be together, with the result being the kids were ignored by their parents. There was considerable noise and distractions coming from their direction, and one of us simply cannot enjoy a meal -- no matter how artfully prepared -- with small children clattering about, unattended. Rather than seethe, a simple query was made to our waiter, who brought the room manager, and we thought we'd have a small battle on our hands. But to our pleasant surprise, our food and table settings were swept up to another, quieter table, fresh drinks, silverware and plates laid down. No explanations were necessary, no apologies needed, and the staff were understanding and happy to make us happy. It was how they dealt with a potential crisis that, to my mind, set them apart from other expensive restaurants. Nothing was too much trouble, not even wrapping up a single bite of leftover swordfish and a mere two spoonfuls of ditalini. They did not placate or attempt to bribe us with free offerings of anything, and it would have been inappropriate to do so. They never made us feel stupid or like yokels. They simply did the right thing, as the situation warranted.
The Park Avenue Café is an event and a destination in and of itself. It is not a place to grab a bite on the go, or a place to just show up and expect to chow down. Reservations are recommended, though depending on the day or time of year, you can almost walk in. It's pricey, but really not excessively so; we shared an inexpensive bottle of Matua Valley (New Zealand) red, several bottles of mineral water, plus the food. Sans tip, the cost was about $100 per person, but none of us felt it was too much. In fact, we're all saving our money for another trip there before long. It's an accessible luxury, a magical experience that can erase the heat of being tourists on a NYC summer day. The process of sitting and savoring, sharing and discussing is one of the great pleasures of being an adult. It's a crème de la crème experience, and if you get a chance, you should definitely go!
P.S. There are many things we didn't mention, including the Chef's Table in the kitchen beneath the dining rooms, the famous grazing menu, the beautiful bathrooms, the contents of the unusual and tasty bread basket, but that's for another review!
Disclaimer: The opinions and observations noted are the property of the author. Neither Wookieehut nor any associates makes any claims or lucre from the posting of this report or review. Enjoy!