Park Avenue Summer
100 East 63rd St
City: New York, NY
Phone: (212) 644-1900
Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m. - 3:00 p.m. Dinner Nightly: Monday through Thursday 5:30 - 11:00 p.m. Friday/Saturday 5:30 - 11:30 p.m. Sunday 5:30 - 10:00 p.m. Saturday/Sunday Brunch: 11:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.
Chef: Craig Koketsu
Cuisine: New American
Area: East 60s
Every season on Bravo’s Top Chef, the weary remaining contenders face off in an Olympic feat known as Restaurant Wars. In a matter of 24 hours they must conceive of and decorate a restaurant, from chairs to wall hangings, to appetizers and desserts. It’s a Herculean challenge, and one that relies as much on management, patience, and vision as it does on the ability to sear a scallop and season a filet of beef. It’s usually the most heated and surprising of episodes. Two years in a row, leading contestants have been asked to pack their knives and go in rather shocking twists of fate. It’s come to be one of my favorite episodes.
I was reminded of the Restaurant Wars challenge last week while having dinner at Park Avenue Summer, a restaurant located on a tree-lined street on the Upper East Side where a similarly formidable challenge takes place in line with the seasons, as fall becomes winter, and spring turns to summer, and so on.
You’ve probably heard all about Park Avenue Fill-In-the-Current-Season. It’s a restaurant that takes seasonality to the extreme, not only making over a few dishes on the menu to correspond with the change in nature’s bounty, but revamping the entire restaurant, from floor to ceiling, banquette to light fixtures, and the complete menu from breadbasket to dessert. Indeed, last week, in a matter of two days, the dining room, designed and built for Garanimals-styled change by AvroKo, was completely transformed. Wall hangings were switched to canary yellow, banquettes and chairs were snapped in with white leather panels, a drop ceiling was removed revealing a weathered roof made from wooden planks salvaged from a century’s old barn, and new light fixtures fashioned from fishing wire and lit with bare bulbs were hung from the barnyard ceiling. Tall flowers the shape of pipecleaners (they’re called Eremuris) were lined up in a row down the center of the dining room, splitting the room a willowy wall of sunny yellow. At the bar, bottles of rose were chilled and pitchers of sangria made from white and rose wines were set out, bobbing with ice cubes and summer fruits.
And in the kitchen, a cadre of cooks under executive chef Craig Koketsu began learning to cook the completely new menu. In a matter or two days, every dish—salads, crudo, soups, mains and sides—would come to life from a fresh palate of summer flavors: corn, truffles, watermelon, sugar snap peas, squash blossoms, strawberries, and tomatoes. All this, plus re-training the waitstaff, in two days time. Talk about an elimination challenge. But chef Craig Koketsu got through it without a scratch and opened his “new” restaurant on May 28th, ushering in the sunny warmth of summer and a slew of guests for dinner.
I had been meaning to visit Park Avenue Season-of-Choice since it opened, but it’s on the Upper East Side, and somehow I hadn’t made it up there. But I kept hearing (and reading) rave reviews, and so I finally made a commitment to go and see what all the fuss was about. As I learned in the course of a few hours last week, the fuss is about quite a lot. First, the newly transformed room is lovely. Playful and fun, the colors of summer brighten the restaurant and fill it with a sense of levity and celebration. While I was expecting a more sedate (read: older) crowd, the room was packed with just as many people working in new media and advertising as hedge funds and law firms; I found an equal mix of waifish twenty and thirty-somethings kicking back after work in designer jeans, and handsome grey-haired couples in dark suits and ties. The food plays well with both sets.
To celebrate summer’s rituals, Koketsu has assembled what he calls a Picnic Menu in addition to the regular dinner menu. It shows off the carefree side of the kitchen, with a basket of buttermilk and cayenne-marinated fried Ipswich clams ($18), served in a gingham paper basket with two “Jersey Shore” dipping sauces: smoked tomato aioli and a pickled mustard seed aioli, which is sort of spicy and pungent, and should be slathered on everything from burgers to hot dogs and sandwiches—just about anything that’s in need of a boost in flavor. The clams are followed up with falling-off-the-bone Dr. Pepper-braised baby back ribs, served on a marble slab with a cup of peach slaw and a can of Dr. Pepper (with illustrated Indiana Jones promotion), poured over ice in a frosted glass. As would be fitting of a picnic, dessert is a warm blueberry and lemon pie. In a few weeks, Koketsu will be serving the Picnic Menu as a sort of party platter for four, at a table spread with a gingham cloth. All that’s missing is some grass and a few ants.
While the Picnic Menu is all lighthearted fun, Koketsu manages to keep that spirit of levity in all of his food, starting out with an amuse bouche of watermelon cubes topped with a dollop of spicy labne yogurt, skewered and set into a flat of wheatgrass. It’s a pretty-as-a-picture dish that’s a wild ride on the tongue—juicy, sweet watermelon slapped with a bit of heat. Your follow up to the amuse is a phenomenal breadbasket generously stocked up with hot and fluffy cheddar and chile biscuits, sweet warm corn brioche rolls, and long thin pink lentil crackers. It’s quite possible to find that you’re staring at an empty breadbasket without even realizing what you’ve done.
Koketsu’s menu starts off with a selection of crudo and appetizers, and we began with salmon tartar ($16), which is one of the most inspired in the city, probably because it’s a riff on the salmon and tomato sushi served at Gari. Koketsu takes a glossy dice of pink salmon, tops it with pulpy roasted tomatoes and fresh basil, and a hit of that labne yogurt, which give the fatty fish sweetness, tartness, and an herbaceous note as well. His fluke sashimi ($15) makes an argument for him to open a sushi joint. Sliced into silky sheer rectangles, it’s adorned simply with two little dots of sauce—a homemade plum sauce and green herb pesto made from cilantro and avocado that add just the right punch to the fish without overpowering it. Softshell crab ($19) is meaty and wonderful, served battered and deep-fried, but greaseless, on a bed of diced avocado and strawberry that add a sweet creaminess to the crunch and the saltiness of the crab dressed in a vinaigrette made from white soy sauce.
Another fun dish is an appetizer ($16/$32) called “caprese” ravioli—an oval dumpling swollen with melting mozzarella, and topped with a fluff of basil and arugula salad set in a deeply flavored sauce of roasted yellow tomatoes. It’s a fancy version of bar food in some ways, the sort of dish that could even be eaten while watching the Celtics and Lakers battle it out, with a pitcher of cold beer. But my favorite dish of the night was a special that night—the corn gnocchi—creamy, pan-fried button-shaped dumplings topped with sugar-sweet roasted corn and fresh shaved summer truffles. Yum.
Bouillabaisse ($35) may be about the fish, in this case halibut, sea scallops and prawns and roe, but honestly, all I wanted was that broth—brick red in color and rich with the saffron, shallots and the sea, and bobbing with what looked like croutons, but what turned out to be cubes of fried aioli that could be spread on toast points. In addition to main courses like the lamb chops, fire-roasted until they are juicy and pink in the center, and served over a faro and smoked cherry salad ($41), the menu offers a selection of more simple items from the grill—filet mignon, veal chop, wild salmon, and langoustines so sweet and so large that it seemed like one of them was trying to cop a feel with its outreached claw.
While sides may not seem necessary, since most main courses are nicely composed, as least a few should be ordered. You could even start with a snack of the crispy artichokes, quartered and lightly fried, topped with a fantastic malt vinegar aioli ($14), or the golden potato latkes, silver dollar in size, and super crunchy, with labne yogurt dipping sauce. (Have you gotten the idea that Koketsu likes Labne? It’s an ingredient that he shows makes a solid addition to any kitchen pantry, if not a singe subject cookbook.)
You must save room for dessert, or come back and have just dessert for dinner. They are the Willy Wonka-styled creations of the acclaimed Richard Leach, and they’re as whimsical as they are delicious, and include a sort of rice pudding egg roll with fresh cherries and cherry sorbet ($13), and a chocolate peppermint trio ($13) that’s a gourmand’s Peppermint Patty dream come true.
If you haven’t eaten at Park Avenue Summer, don’t wait as long as I did to go. Make a date in the near future to check it out. It’s a great place for a work event, a night out with friends, a date, or a dinner with the parents. You could probably even fit it in pre-theater. The service is attentive, the room feels warmed by the sun, and the food is truly exceptional. The kitchen excels at articulate flavors that are clean and precise, and consequently, delicious. I was not only impressed with the food, I loved the spirit of the cooking, and the thoughtfulness that comes through in the little details like those Jersey Shore sauces, or the smoked plums with the lamb, the malt vinegar aioli on the artichokes.
It’s hard for me to believe that just last week at this time Koketsu and his crew were cooking a completely different menu in a completely different restaurant. To change that much in a matter of 48 hours, and have it be this good, is pretty impressive. I’d be willing to go to Judge’s Table with my money on Koketsu.
Review By: Andrea Strong