(Porcini ravioli appetizer with swiss chard and gorgonzola cream)
Park Avenue Winter (100 E. 63rd St. at Park Avenue)
To kick off NYC Restaurant Week Winter 2011, I decided to begin at one of the restaurants that most tempted me with their offering at the 2010 New York Taste (by New York Magazine). On the far wall of the studio stood a tree with miniature caramel apples protruding from branches at every angle. On lollipop sticks, golfball-sized scooped apple balls had been dipped in buttery caramel, and then rolled in savory bits. One apple was speckled with bread crumbs and herbs, another polka dotted with bits of smoked bacon. They were simple, delicious, and utterly addictive. So when it came time to book restaurant week reservations, those tart and salty little crunchy savory apples popped immediately to mind.
After checking our snow-speckled coats (we aptly chose a blustery winter day), we were guided to our table in the main dining room. The gimmick at Park Avenue Winter is that every three months they close for 48 hours before reopening under the theme of the new season. In a few months, the menu and decor will be reconceived for the spring, keeping not only a seasonally fresh menu, but ambiance as well. Unfortunately, the resulting effect on both my friend and I felt less like a loftily conceptualized Park Avenue gourmand destination, and more like a part-Ikea showroom, part high school prom.
Themes are a little tacky, anyway, and while I'd likely be exiled from New York if I didn't support a seasonal farm-to-table menu, it didn't really warm me up to step in from the snow to a frosted decor. Maybe a theme of the opposite season would be a better idea, in room design at least. Snap-on seat covers were reminiscent of an airline. Snakeskin place mats were anything but appetizing, and they don't even serve eel. Wall panels looked as though they'd been covered in a herd of slaughtered mountain goats. And big glass jars with giant dead branches sticking out look more like a kindergarten craft project than trendy room accents.
Not to mention the servers looked like a show choir that lost sectionals to the cast of Glee. White shirts, white vests, and white(ish) Levi jeans. Yep, jeans. Jeans that had dirty handprints all over the rump on several of the servers and dining room attendants passing us (those whose pants were pulled all of the way up, anyway... a few of the staff were slightly gangsta). Not only did our thug server forget a dish we ordered in addition to the restaurant week prix fixe (you'd think any server would love an upsell), but at one point as he was clearing plates, decided he didn't like the way they were teetering on his arm, put everything back on the table, and then reloaded, all while I bit my tongue not to holler "Jenga!" Unforgivable for a restaurant serving salads in the $30 price range.
Bread service was actually a high and low of the meal. A warm, salt-dusted brioche roll tore apart like a buttery croissant, so delicious and fluffy we actually asked for a second one. But in the basket with it was a dense, dry, tough pumpkin loaf that we eventually tucked under the napkin so the basket would be removed.
For a restaurant conceived on the notion of seasons and change, it was somewhat surprising to see a salad that has been on the menu since 2007, though I can certainly see why. The cured-lemon caesar salad was a boat of whole ribs of lettuce sitting on a parmesan crisp, liberally drizzled with dressing and cheese shavings, but with the vibrant addition of cured lemon.
Sadly, one of the dishes I most eagerly anticipated fell a bit heavy and monotonous. The seared scallop sandwich, though tasty, was disappointingly muddled, the scallops lost beneath a redundant scallop cream sauce, and a starchy, heavy pile of hash. The one scallop I pulled from the wreckage and enjoyed on its own was perfection, sadly suffocated in an over (or under) conceptualized dish.
My friend had the foresight to ask for the horseradish creme on the side after watching several sliced filet mignon sandwiches walk past our table, seemingly swimming in the stuff. The creme was actually quite delicious in moderation, and the filet mignon buttery and tender, though the caramelized onions quickly reduced the bread to a soggy french onion soup crouton, the cherry tomatoes adding little more than color.
Skate has become one of my favorite fish, especially prepared in a classic french style. So when I read that it was served with peekytoe crab and a blood orange grenobloise, I couldn't resist. After digging in, it became quite apparent that there was no need for the crab, as it really tastes quite similar to the skate. Again from a sauce-heavy kitchen, the skate was waterlogged with butter and oil, stealing it of most of its integrity, the blood orange a discordant afterthought, as well as the three random purple potatoes.
The appetizer finally arrived after the meal, once I confirmed that yes, we still wanted to try it. Fuschia microgreens can only do so much to beautify an otherwise unsightly dish. For $16, you can have four perfectly cooked ravioli in a gorgonzola cream sauce ($4 a piece for ravioli and they should be stuffed with more than a mere fungus). The dish would have been perfect if left to just the pasta pockets and cream sauce, but instead, it had to be piled on a mush of blanched swiss chard, and then muddled with candied walnuts, caramelized red onions, and a haystack of microgreens.
Despite a seriously confused menu that ranges from meatball sliders and foie gras stuffed chateaubriand to bacon & potato gnocchi and a side of broccoli & cheetohs, we still held out hope that we would be thrilled by the dessert offerings of James Beard Award-winning pastry chef Richard Leach. Now I realize that for $24.07, lunch isn't going to be served with the most eye-popping meticulously prepared desserts. But a soupy Meyer lemon panna cotta was little more exciting than a tub of Dannon yogurt with a macaroon harpooned over the rim with an oversized wooden skewer.
Thank goodness we ended with the frozen banana and chocolate parfait. A stemless martini glass loaded with crispy chocolate crumbles, a cylinder of delicious banana ice cream, and a dollop of fresh cream, stacked above a tiny pool of toffee. Unfortunately, it was too little too late for a lackluster meal that disappointed on numerous levels.
Tip: bring your own paper towels. The bathroom is more like a gym locker room. While I'm all about going green, at least get an air hand dryer. Cloth napkins sitting exposed to sneezing and whatever else are the last thing I want to use to dry my hands.
For a meal for two valued at over $100 outside of the restaurant week special pricing, consider instead the exceptional seasonal offerings at Cafe Boulud in the neighborhood, or even Fig & Olive just around the corner. But if seasonal farm-to-table is really the appeal for you, skip the upper east side all together and head to ABC Kitchen where the concept is brilliantly executed with an outstanding year round prix fixe lunch.