Entries in Alan Stillman (9)


Park Avenue Autumn

As a general rule, I don’t believe restaurant spaces are “cursed”. Consecutive failures at the same address are usually attributable to explainable human errors, and not any supernatural intervention.

I might just have to revise my view if Park Avenue Autumn (and its three seasonal cousins) fails in its new home, which has seen four restaurant concepts in four years, all from the same ownership group, Alan and Michael Stillman’s Fourth Wall Restaurants. The company has a strong record of populist success (Smith & Wollensky, Quality Meats, Quality Italian), everywhere but here.

In its original home, almost forty blocks north, this restaurant lasted twenty-two years, first as Park Avenue Café, and starting in 2007, as Park Avenue what-have-you, with the name, signage, décor, servers’ uniforms, and menu changing with the season every three months. That lasted six years, before losing its lease at the end of 2013.

After General Assembly quickly flopped earlier this year, the Stillmans decided to re-launch “a more casual, accessible version” of their Park Avenue concept. Design firm AvroKO is on hand once again with a modular décor, which evokes the current season with pitch-perfect precision, but within a matter of days, can be swapped out for the next. It might be too Disney-fied for some tastes.

By the end of its run uptown, Park Avenue Season had matured into a solid two-star place: I liked my second visit (in 2011) quite a bit better than the first (2007). The restaurant was usually full at prime times. But that was in a much smaller space, and in a neighborhood where the locals don’t wince at entrées averaging in the mid-$30s.

Located at a comparatively dead spot on Park Avenue South, the massive floor plan worked to the disadvantage of Hurricane Club, Hurricane Steak, and General Assembly, the first three concepts the Stillmans tried here. In this cavernous labrynth of connected rooms, the charm of the original Park Avenue hasn’t quite survived. Meanwhile, the promise of a supposedly “more casual, accessible” restaurant does not apply to the bill: it’s as expensive as ever. (The online menu is posted without prices—a strictly low-class move.)

Zene Flinn and Benkai O’Sullivan are co-executive chefs. Flinn was with the team uptown, and the menu here is very much in the same spirit as the original, with most of the dishes inspired by the season. It might almost be called old-fashioned, with appetizers $15–19, entrées $19–38 (almost all over $30), and side dishes $10. The downtown crowd might be disoriented in a restaurant with no sharing plates, “large format” dishes, or tasting menus.

The ten-page wine list (available online with prices—such a concept!) doesn’t offer many bargains, but it is not unfairly priced in relation to the food. The 2004 Château Berliquet was $76, a shade over two times retail, and the sommelier decanted it—always a nice touch.

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Park Avenue Spring

Note: Park Avenue ______ lost its lease at the end of 2013. A new restaurant from Chef Michael White’s Altamarea Group was expected to replace it. The restaurant has re-located to 360 Park Avenue, site of two failed projects from the same owners, Hurricane Club and General Assembly.


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)

Food: **
Service: **
Ambiance: *½
Overall: **


The Hurricane Club

Note: The wind blew Hurricane Club out of town. It closed in late 2013, having been previously re-branded Hurricane Steak and Sushi. General Assembly, a “market-driven grill” (yawn) from the same owners, replaced it in 2014. This too quickly failed. Next up in the space is the transfer of Park Avenue [Season] from its original address, where they owners lost their lease.


Resistance is futile. That was my immediate reaction to The Hurricane Club, the new Polynesian-themed restaurant from the Quality Meats/Park Avenue Autumn team.

It is pointless to wish it were something else, to wonder why, or to belittle the concept. Just submit to its charms, or don’t go.

Apparently, these places were once popular in Manhattan. Sometimes called “tiki bars,” one of them even had three stars. By the 1990s, the genre once exemplified by Trader Vic’s at the Plaza, was practically dead.

This year, restaurateurs are banking on a revival, with three tiki joints set to open. Hurricane Club is probably the most elaborate of these.

To call it “Polynesian” isn’t quite accurate. It’s about as authentic as Fantasy Island, lacking only for Ricardo Montalbán and Hervé Villachaize screaming, “The plane! The plane!”

There is a protective gauze over all of the windows, and the doors are covered top-to-bottom, so that nobody outside can catch a glimpse of the space. Once inside, it’s an AvroKO playland, a South Pacific dreamscape that would make Club Med jealous.

The enormous 250-seat space has 20-foot ceilings, about six dining rooms and lounges, and a wrap-around bar with a life-size Buddha draped in pearls.

It’s hard to tell if you’re in a restaurant or on a cruise ship. Servers are dapper in their all-white, crisply pressed dinner jackets. Cocktail waitresses sport barely-there thin black dresses.

The cocktail list in ten categories is so long that you order by number. I practically never order frozen drinks, but here…why not? The #37 (left; $11) with cucumber and mint was pretty good. Most of the choices are $12 or less, which these days is pretty reasonable.

The liquor program goes well beyond cliché, with a list of about a hundred rums: they don’t come cheap, with prices ranging from $39 to $1,999. The five-page wine list emphasizes the Pacific Rim. It was hard to find bargains there, either.

In the lounge and at the tables, there’s a gimmicky “Pu Pu” menu, listing a dozen items—all finger food, $12 each, with 3 or 4 pieces. With the little pencils provided, you’re to write down how many of each thing you want; or, you can just order the Pu Pu Platter ($28/$58) and get a large sampler.

I didn’t bother to write anything down, and just asked the server for an order of the Peking Duck Tea Sandwiches ($3; below left), which tasted exactly as you would imagine.

The two-page dinner menu offers items in seven categories, none labeled “appetizer” or “entrée.” The starter-like substances are $9–17, the mains (or apparent mains) $17–44. Yes, that is a wide range. Portions seem to be very large, and there is a danger of over-ordering.

Rice Paper Shrimp Rolls ($14; above right) spent too little time in the deep fryer, and came out slightly mushy.

The server correctly advised that Crispy Peking Pig ($44; above), although listed as a single entrée, would be more than enough for two people. Basically, it’s a pig prepared in the style of Peking Duck, with the traditional accompaniments and pork buns to wrap it with. This was the best suckling pig preparation we have had in quite a while, but it came out not quite warm enough.

The pig is listed in its own box, a feat of menu engineering designed to make it Hurricane Club’s most often-ordered dish. Based on our observations, it seemed to have worked: we saw orders of the pig flying out of the kitchen. It is not a bad deal for two or three people, but if you order much else you’re liable to leave part of it unfinished—as we did.

Of course, to claim that this is the cuisine of any recognizable Polynesian nation is nonsense, but it is a very good dish, and who cares where it comes from? Chef Craig Koketsu (Quality Meats, Park Avenue [name your season]) is a proven talent, who will probably get more right than wrong.

The attentive service is excellent, bringing an air of seriousness to a place that could easily devolve into a tourist trap. Despite the hokey concept, there appears to be a legitimate attempt to do it right—whatever that might mean for a tiki bar (I am frankly not sure).

Hurricane Club won’t be for everybody. We suspect it will attract a lot of big groups, tour buses, families taking in a matinée, and so forth. There certainly are questions whether quality can be maintained in a 250-seat place: those soggy shrimp rolls are an early warning sign. Inevitably, some meals will seem mass-produced.

If you buy into the concept, just get on the boat, and enjoy the ride for what it is. There is some fun to be had.

Hurricane Club (360 Park Avenue South at 26th Street, Gramercy/Flatiron)

Food: *½
Service: **
Ambiance: **
Overall: *½


The Payoff: Park Avenue Autumn

Today, Frank Bruni is smitten with Park Avenue Autumn, turning in a quite enthusiastic two-star review.

It’s not often that I have the feeling that Bruni and I dined at different places. If I’ve dined there at around the same time, I usually feel like he’s describing the same experience as I had. When my rating is different, it’s because I weigh the value of that experience differently, not because I feel he’s describing something alien.

But today, Bruni’s enthusiasm for Park Avenue Autumn is truly unrecognizable in relation to the very mediocre meal we had there not long ago. I can only assume that we caught the restaurant on an off-night: such things can happen.

Unfortunately, it means I am a loser today, and Eater is a winner on our hypothetical one-dollar bets. Eater wins $4 at 4–1 odds, while I lose $1.

          Eater        NYJ
Bankroll $49.50   $53.67
Gain/Loss +4.00   –1.00
Total $53.50   $52.67
 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 21–5   19–7

Rolling the Dice: Park Avenue Autumn

Every week, we take our turn with Lady Luck on the BruniBetting odds as posted by Eater. Just for kicks, we track Eater’s bet too, and see who is better at guessing what the unpredictable Bruni will do. We track our sins with an imaginary $1 bet every week.

The Line: Tomorrow, Frank Bruni reviews Park Avenue Autumn, the only restaurant in town that changes its name four times a year. The Eater oddsmakers have set the action as follows (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars: 4-1
One Star: 3-1
Two Stars: 4-1
Three Stars: 750-1
Four Stars: 25,000-1

The Skinny: The Eater odds are a little funny sometimes. Frank Bruni gave zero stars last week to Wakiya, and he isn’t going to award a donut twice in a row, so the only outcomes truly in play here are one or two stars.

We weren’t impressed with Park Avenue Autumn’s summertime incarnation, awarding zero. Much as I disagree with Bruni sometimes, our ratings have seldom been more than one star apart. That alone would incline me to take the one-star bet.

On top of that, Bruni is seldom enthralled with “scene-y” places, which this unquestionably is. And he also tends to punish (as he should) high-priced restaurants with uneven performance, which I also think this is.

The Bet: We are betting that Frank Bruni will award one star to Park Avenue Autumn.


Park Avenue Summer


Note: Click here for a more recent, more favorable, review of Park Avenue Spring.


When I heard about Park Avenue Summer, I didn’t know if the concept was ingenius or the world’s dumbest gimmick. Craig Koketsu is the chef, and I love what he’s done at Quality Meats. You figure the former chef de cuisine at Lespinasse can’t go too far wrong. AvroKO handled the décor, and they hit a home run just about every time (Quality Meats, Public, and many others).

Amuse-bouche: Watermelon topped with yogurt
The idea is that the restaurant will change its name four times a year. With mid-September approaching, the place will close any day now, and re-open as Park Avenue Autumn with a brand new menu.

The wall panels—right now a summery yellow, adorned with sea shells—are removable, and there are three other versions of them, so that the restaurant can re-invent itself with each change of the seasons. But many restaurants change their menu seasonally, or indeed more often. Is the seasonal makeover really necessary?

The menu is no bargain. Appetizers are $11–18, entrées $28–45 (most in the 30s), side dishes $4–12. At those prices the restaurant has to be more than merely ordinary, and alas, we weren’t impressed.

The amuse-bouche was one of the better tries: a square of watermelon with a swirl of yogurt on top. The kitchen also did right by Maine Sea Scallops ($15), garnished with peaches and almond granola. The scallops were nicely seared, and the ingredients worked well together. But my girlfriend’s ravioli ($14) really misfired. It was slightly cold and definitely under-cooked. 

parkavesummer02a.jpg parkavesummer02b.jpg
Maine Sea Scallops (left); John Dory (right)

John Dory ($34) came with summer truffles and a poached egg. The fish was competently done, but the truffles weren’t integrated into the dish. They seemed to be an afterthought, there to impart a faux elegance. My girlfriend ordered the Fire-Roasted Lamb Chops ($39), but she tasted no fire in them at all. There was no sear, and they tasted rather bland.

Heirloom tomato risotto
There was a printed specials menu with an heirloom tomato theme. We ordered a side of the heirloom tomato risotto, which we found to be the best thing that came out of Koketsu’s kitchen. It was a sign that better things are possible at Park Avenue Summer.

We weren’t much impressed with the AvroKO décor, which seemed cheesy—like something out of a cruise ship. The traffic pattern is awkward, with food runners frequently passing through the lobby area. Strangely, the bar has no seating. There is a small lounge with only a few seats, where (as the story goes) you get to mix your own drinks, but we didn’t investigate it further.

We found the wine list way over-priced, much like the rest of the restaurant, with few bottles of interest below $50. Service at the beginning of the meal was a bit rushed, as if they wanted us out of there, but at the end our server disappeared, and it was hard to find someone to bring us a check. The twenty-something hostesses seemed clueless.

Chef Craig Koketsu
The crowd was very Upper East Side, youngish, and 100% caucasian. So far, it’s a tough table to book, which may say something about the paucity of alternatives in that neighorhood.

The restaurant has been largely ignored by the major critics, perhaps an act of kindness. The closest thing to a mainstream review came from the always generous Randall Lane in Time Out New York, who awarded an inconceivable five stars out of six.

I have to think that Craig Koketsu is capable of doing better. But as of now, alas, Park Avenue Summer is the world’s dumbest gimmick. Save your money, and go elsewhere.

Park Avenue Summer (100 E. 63rd Street at Park Avenue, Upper East Side)

Food: Uneven
Service: Average
Ambiance: Cruise ship
Overall: Needs work


Smith & Wollensky

smith_wollensky.gifSmith & Wollensky isn’t quite the dean of New York steakhouses, but at thirty years old, it predates most this city’s beef emporiums. There are now S&W’s in nine cities. In New York alone, the same restaurant group also owns Post House and Quality Meats, in addition to the flagship at 49th & 3rd.

I believe I paid my first visit to S&W around fifteen years ago. My only recollection is the after-dinner cigars we enjoyed at the bar, an experience that couldn’t be reproduced today. A few weeks ago, a friend visiting from out of town was in a steakhouse mood. We chose S&W, as it was near his hotel.

S&W offers the same generic menu, at the same generic prices, that you find at most New York steakhouses. We both ordered the filet mignon, which came in a huge double portion. It was charred, nicely aged, and prepared to the correct temperature. The server was no doubt aware that it came with an ample helping of vegetables, but he didn’t mention that as we ordered an entirely unnecessary side order of creamed spinach.

The décor is unremarkable. When I wandered around looking for the restroom, it struck me that the upkeep was a bit sloppy, with various carts and trays left lying around in a hallway.

Smith & Wollensky has enjoyed four full New York Times reviews—a remarkable achievement for a formula restaurant. In December 1977, shortly after it opened, Mimi Sheraton rated it “Fair.” The format has apparently changed over time, as Sheraton described Smith & Wollensky as an “Italian steakhouse,” and there certainly is no vestige of that today. For the record, there never was anyone named Smith or Wollensky; the founder, Alan Stillman, chose those two names at random out of a Manhattan telephone directory.

In 1986, Bryan Miller upgraded the restaurant to “Satisfactory,” and then again in 1990 to one star. In its most recent review, in 1997, Ruth Reichl called it “A Steakhouse to End All Arguments,” awarding two stars. It was a peculiar headline, given her admission that she preferred Peter Luger (to which she had awarded three stars). To her, the difference was that at Smith & Wollensky you could order a fish entrée, and not feel like it had been an afterthought.

In  the last several years, there has been a glut of new steakhouses. Many of them mindlessly follow the traditional format, but a few have actually improved on it, such as BLT Prime, Porter House, and S&W’s sister establishment, Quality Meats. I suspect even Ruth Reichl would agree that, these days, a traditional steakhouse needs a little something extra to win two stars. These newer restaurants have it; Smith & Wollensky does not.

Smith & Wollensky (797 Third Avenue at 49th Street, East Midtown)

Food: *
Service: Fair
Ambiance: *
Overall: *


Easter Sunday at Quality Meats


My girlfriend, son, and I had Easter dinner at Quality Meats. This was our second visit—see earlier review—and cemented our view that Quality Meats is in the top echelon of New York steakhouses.

The most notable recent trend in Manhattan steakhouses—aside from the sheer quantity of them—is the rise of what I call “chick-friendly” steakhouses. It’s probably an unfair term, since plenty of women go to the standard Peter Luger-style steakhouses too. But at most of the classic steakhouses, the clientele is very obviously male-dominated. There are other stereotypes too, such as the wood paneling, unimaginative menu, and old-school waiters who seem almost bored.

Quality Meats, and others of its ilk, break this mold. They come across as fine-dining restaurants that happen to serve great steak, rather than as cookie-cutter steakhouses.

It would take a far more scientific study than I have time for to rate Quality Meats for the steaks alone, but they’re fairly close to the top of the heap, if not quite at the pinacle of it. There may be better classic steakhouses, but the supporting cast make Quality Meats a superior experience—from the excellent side dishes; to the homemade steak sauce, prepared tableside; and finally to the enjoyable AvroKO ambiance and first-rate service.

quality_meats_door.gifMy girlfriend and I were both pleased with the 24 oz. bone-in rib steak ($44), which came with a foot-long rib bone still attached. The steak had the appropriate dry-aged taste, was done to the correct temperature, and was nicely marbled. My son did well by the 12 oz. filet mignon ($39).

We got the same side dishes as last time, the asparagus ($9) and the incredibly addictive crispy potatoes ($9), to which hot garlic butter was added tableside.

The wine list offers plenty to explore at reasonable prices. A Santa Duc Quatre Terres Côte du Rhône at $45 was a happy choice to go with what we had ordered.

For dessert, Quality Meats offers a great selection of ice creams ($6 for two scoops), so we all had that.

The restaurant did a brisk Easter business, but wasn’t full. Service was excellent, but for a repeat of the same upselling trick our server tried last time. We knew that steaks plus side dishes would be plenty, so we didn’t order appetizers. The server said, “Are you sure you don’t want appetizers? The steaks are going to take about 25 minutes.” Having been lured by this ruse last time, we politely declined. Sure enough, the wait for our steaks was more like 15 minutes.

There are plenty of great Manhattan steakhouses on my hit parade. If I’m just hungry for a steak, I walk in, order a slab of meat (with nothing else), and go home sated. But for a steakhouse that offers the whole package, Quality Meats may be the best of them all.

Quality Meats (57 West 58th St., east of Sixth Avenue, West Midtown)

Food: **
Service: **
Ambiance: **
Overall: **


Quality Meats

Quality Meats is a new entry in the sub-genre of luxury steakhouses, a niche occupied by itself, BLT Steak, BLT Prime, and Craftsteak. Characteristic of the category, the décor is significantly more upscale and chick-friendly than the typical steakhouse, the wine list more serious, the side dishes more carefully thought out, and the prices are several dollars more per entree than the already expensive standard set by NYC steakhouses.

My friend and I gave Quality Meats a try last night. We found it a tad superior to Craftsteak, although with a few reservations. The restaurant offers a 64 oz. double bone-in rib steak for two, for $110. We’re both fans of the ribeye, so we gave it a try. This was enormous, sliced tableside, with more of a “prime rib” taste than usual for a solo ribeye steak. We asked for a preparation between medium and medium rare, which the kitchen executed perfectly. We brought the ample leftovers home.

The amuse bouche was a deviled egg, which struck us as unusual at this type of restaurant, but the kitchen did a fine job with it. They also sent out freshly baked dinner rolls, which were sinfully good. For appetizers, my friend had a salad, while I ordered the bone marrow ($9), which was excellent. While we awaited our steak, a server came over and prepared a terrific home-made steak sauce tableside. I don’t normally use steak sauce, but for this I made an exception.

For side dishes, we ordered the crispy potatoes ($7), which came in a hot pan, over which garlic butter was poured at the table. The effect was upscale potato chips. An order of grilled asparagus ($8) was wonderful. To go along with this, I found a very reasonable pinot noir. The total for two, before tip, was $215, which for a meal of this quality in New York was quite reasonable.

If the story ended there, I’d give Quality Meats a solid three stars. But there were a number of glitches with the service. When we asked for the double ribeye, we initially did not want appetizers, as we knew we were in for something huge. Our server warned us that the ribeye would take 90 minutes to prepare, and asked if we wanted to reconsider the appetizers. We were baffled as to how a steak could take 90 minutes, but we took her word for it and ordered appetizers. In the meantime, our steak appeared 35–40 minutes later.

We would also like to have been told that the steak came with about a pound of mushrooms and glazed onions, in which case we wouldn’t have ordered two side dishes on top of that. Lastly, we were subjected to unctuous upselling at dessert time. We were full at that point, but the server tried to break our resistance: “Are you sure you don’t want any dessert? Perhaps an ice cream to share?” On an already expensive bill, this bordered on offensive. We held our ground, but it was annoying nonetheless.

For a restaurant of this size, the noise level was manageable. The AvroKO décor is spectacular, but the tables are small and close together. Indeed, there was not room on our table for everything we had ordered, and our server had to commandeer the next table over, which fortunately was not yet occupied. I don’t know what they would have done had it been a full house.

I’m sure I’ll be back to Quality Meats — a steakhouse this good deserves to be on everyone’s list. I sure hope they’ll get their service team knocked into better shape.

Quality Meats (57 W 58th Street, East of Sixth Avenue, West Midtown)

Food: ***
Service: *
Ambiance: **
Overall: **