There is a fine line between gimmick and inspiration. When Park Avenue Summer opened on the Upper East Side three years ago, I was inclined to think it was the former. The time has come to revise that view.
The restaurant’s conceit remains the same: four times a year, it closes for a couple of days and completely re-does its décor, signage, menu, website—everything. Design firm AvroKO configured the space with removable wall panels and seat cushions, which permits a total make-over every three months.
But what seemed like an overwrought ode to seasonality has withstood the test of time. Despite stratospheric prices, the restaurant is perpetually packed, no matter the time of year. On a recent Saturday evening, the food was much improved since my visit in 2008, when I gave it no stars.
With opening chef Craig Koketsu now splitting his time among three restaurants, the kitchen is in the hands of executive chef Kevin Lasko, who has worked at the space since it was called Park Avenue Café. The menu is spackled with vegetables and fish in season, though most of the proteins (steak tartare, filet mignon) could be served without apology all year long.
I had long suspected that Park Avenue _____ was worthy of a revisit, ever since Frank Bruni awarded two stars, a rating that had surprised me. Prices are a significant deterrent. With appetizers averaging $16, entrées $35, and desserts $15, you’re unlikely to get out for less than $100 per head, unless you drink water. Our bill was $175 before tax and tip, and that was with a shared appetizer and dessert comped.
Even when the place opened, there was nothing novel about its seasonal approach to cuisine. For about the same price, you can dine at Blue Hill in Greenwich Village, where the cuisine, service, and atmosphere are all better. ABC Kitchen in Chelsea is roughly similar, and slightly less expensive. Which restaurant you prefer may come down to a neighborhood preference or your mood on a given day.
For many diners, the price point will remain a turn-off, when every Brooklyn neighborhood has a much less expensive, come-as-you-are, rustic chic restaurant that doesn’t take reservations, with a farm in the back yard, and some long-bearded guy in the kitchen. If you’re in the mood for the haute barnyard motif in more upscale (but yet not formal) surroundings, Park Avenue _____ might be the place for you.
The amuse bouche (above left) of root vegetables and yogurt was served in a witty bird-sculpture vessel. This came with a basket of house-made bread: a spring herb roll, a red pepper and jack cheese cornbread, and a flat bread with red lentil, bulgur wheet, and quinoa.
As it was late, we shared an appetizer: a crab cake ($18; above right) with raspberries and avocado. There was nothing special about the crab itself, but such an unusual combination of ingredients made a curiously effective impact.
A pork chop ($29; above left) and filet mignon ($42; above middle) were served with appropriate vegetables of the season. Taken on their own, the proteins were as well executed as they should be at a restaurant as expensive as this, but otherwise unmemorable. A side dish of peas and carrots ($9; above right) was excellent.
Dessert was comped, either because I was recognized, or to make up for a minor service snafu before we were seated. After a small chocolate crumble (above left) came the Chocolate Cube (normally $15; above right), which the server said is so popular that it is served all year long. One of the most remarkable desserts I have had in a long time, a thick hard chocolate cube gives way to a remarkably moist custard, with a texture between cake and panna cotta. If the rest of pastry chef Kevin Leach’s desserts are as good as this, he deserves to be far better known.
It is not the restaurant’s fault that it is popular. We arrived fifteen minutes before our 9:30 p.m. reservation, to find that we could not be seated early, and there were no seats available at the bar. We milled around the crowded vestibule and put in a drinks order, which took a while to come. The dining room is on the loud side when full, and at some two-tops, including ours, you’ll be very nearly in your neighbors’ laps. You’ll admire the pretty space, but you’ll be a bit frustrated that there is nowhere to put down the wine list. Service is courteous and professional.
Park Avenue _____ doesn’t get much press any more. The Upper East Side crowd it predominantly caters to is happy, and its quarterly revamp ensures that the restaurant always seems new.
Park Avenue Spring (100 E. 63rd Street at Park Avenue, Upper East Side)