The Undeniably Exquisite Washington ParkJul 5, 2002 Write an essay on this topic.
The Bottom Line A newcomer restaurant with an old-timer celebrity chef. A classy joint, bursting with potential, that is a credit to its neighborhood.
The soft, thick tablecloths and restroom hand towels are Frette. The perfectly polished flatware is Christofle. The serversí crisp-edged shirts are Pink. And I wouldnít be surprised if someone told me that the stunning gold-rimmed dessert plates were Villeroy & Boch. There is no question that Washington Park has class and elegance to spare. What is remarkable is how seamlessly all these upscale touches are integrated into this restaurant. Everything about Washington Park is so natural and fluid that it feels like a beloved neighborhood watering hole even though its prices make it more of a special occasion restaurant. You will not find any pretension or pomp and circumstance at Washington Park despite the fact that it has all the bells and whistles of the most expensive joints in town. If I were describing a person instead of a restaurant, I would say that person wore his wealth well as if he had been born into it.
Located on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Ninth Street, just a stoneís throw away from Washington Square Park, Washington Park seems very much a reflection of the neighborhoodís illustrious history. During the early 19th century, the area surrounding Washington Square was a bastion of gentility, home to many wealthy families whose fashionable townhouses encircled the perimeter of the Square. Washington Park exudes a befitting refinement though I hesitate to use that word because I wouldnít want you to mistake it for being stuffy. No, I attribute the refinement to the restaurantís timeless quality. It feels simultaneously classic and modern, cultured yet down-to-earth.
In case you havenít figured it out by now, I am a huge fan of Washington Park and of chef Jonathan Waxman, who brought Californian cuisine to New York. Waxman made a name for himself first at Michaelís in Santa Monica, CA (one of the early restaurants that put Californian cuisine on the map) and then at Jams in New York City, a restaurant that closed before my time.
Meals at Washington Park are life-changing experiences.
It requires a lot of talent to pull off simplicity, but Waxman breezes through with flying colors at Washington Park. He gives same-day Greenmarket produce their proper respect and lets them shine without crowding them. His dedication to freshness is apparent in his daily changing menus, which may be the cause for some disappointment if you absolutely fall in love with a dish like I did. But there is no substitute for a vegetable or fruit whose time has come. The vibrant flavors of the dishes will cry out to you or make you cry out Ė I donít know which is better.
One night I had the most amazing porcini, moral and summer truffle pasta ($16). The flavorful mushroom sauce clung to chewy homemade fetticine noodles. The smooth, flat surface of the earthy porcinis contrasted perfectly with the acorn-shaped, spongy, nuttier morals, and the truffles were some of the freshest that I ever tasted.
On another night, I tried the fried ipswich clams served with aioli sauce ($18), the best clams in the country as proclaimed by our server. Lusciously plump, jarringly fresh, oceanic clams from the Massachusetts coastline lightly battered and fried. A squeeze of lemon juice completed the dish. What more could a girl ask for?
Except possiblyÖ.crab cakes ($16) resting on a bed of wilted greens. One gentle forkful revealed mounds of fresh Maine crabmeat. A pickled flavored radish salsa accented this dish nicely. Praise to the chef for avoiding the latest trend of spicy Southwestern-style crab cakes.
The fireworks donít stop with the appetizers. When it comes to entrees, Washington Park makes you re-evaluate foods you may have previously dismissed as lifeless and staid. Take halibut, for instance, a fish that I generally find boring and somewhat oily. Waxman uses an ultra-flaky halibut ($28) in his rendition of this dish that is neither oily nor dull and pairs it with lobster sauce, made from lobster stock reduction, baby bok choi and green beans.
Chicken is another great example. Being one of his signature dishes, jw chicken and fries ($25) occupies a permanent spot on Washington Parkís menu. One bite of the oh-so-tender chicken breast and you will quickly comprehend why this selection has remained a part of Waxmanís regular repertoire. Waxman serves two generous pieces of succulent roasted chicken with crunchy, first-rate fries that can be measured against the best Belgian frites in the city. The portion was so plentiful that Mr. Epicure could barely finish his dish (and his vast appetite is legendary among our friends).
The size of the crispy soft shell crabs ($31) impressed me as well. The spindly legs of the crabs nearly overhung the plate. I donít think Iíve ever seen such substantial soft shell crabs before. The shell to crabmeat ratio was perfect, and the tomatillo sauce added an unusual and intriguing flavor to the mix, almost like guava but sharper.
Because I adore seafood, my reviews sometimes have more of a seafood slant, but lest you think Washington Park is not equally strong in meats, allow me to relay a few of our serverís recommendations. The niman ranch pork loin ($26) served with wilted greens and olive oil is supposedly fantastic with the pork loin having been marinated for an entire week! The sweetbreads with wild mushrooms ($29) and the braised duck legs with cauliflower puree ($26) were also highly touted. In general, the menu provides a nice balanced selection of fish, shellfish and red meat. There are more vegetarian choices among the appetizers, which I suspect can be ordered as a main course.
One word of advice Ė trust the recommendations of your server. We did and never had a momentís regret. We were especially happy with the suggestions of a server named Joe. He seems to have the sort of encyclopedic knowledge base regarding food that only a true food lover can have. He not only tells you all the ingredients of a dish, but he also describes with great accuracy the interplay of flavors in such dish in loving detail. It almost reminds me of the way a sommelier describes a bottle of fine wine. Even if you donít typically ask questions of your server, you must do it if you get Joe as a server.
It simply isnít possible to exaggerate the wonders that pastry chef Heather Miller works on the dessert menu. Her strawberry soup ($11) ranks among the most sublime fruit desserts that I have ever had. Made with Jersey strawberries at the peak of ripeness (the medium-sized ones, not the really jumbo strawberries), the soup blends the intense flavor of wild strawberries with a splash of red wine and lemon juice. In the center of the bowl, you will find a tiny pile of shaved muscat-verbena ice, a graceful signature touch in my opinion.
No less wondrous is the pastry chefís milk chocolate-banana cream tart ($10), the banana cream tart to end all banana cream tarts, and Iím not even a fan of bananas. For any kid who has relished creamy chocolate milkshakes and chocolate pudding with Cool Whip on a warm summer day, Millerís silky milk chocolate filling carefully treads the line between the two, somehow improving on them both. The crust consists of a multi-layered phyllo that left behind many alluring flakes with which to consume the mellow toasted almond caramel sauce.
I sampled a most excellent brioche bread pudding ($10) during my first visit to Washington Park, which has since disappeared from the menu. What a shame! It was served in a charming miniature copper skillet, which immediately increased its appeal to me. Some people consider bread pudding a rustic and casual dessert that allows them to dispose of their mismatched leftover bread chunks. Clearly Ms. Miller does not share their vision. The texture of her bread pudding is fine and smooth with not a trace of bread crust. She marries sweet blueberries and tangy lemon curd in her creation, melting the curd on the brioche.
Even the sorbets, arguably the simplest desserts on the menu, were prepared with great care and skill. My order of sorbet came with a scoop of each of lemon hibiscus, mixed berry and peach sorbet ($9) in an elegant cocktail glass, topped with a small palmier. They all tasted like the fruit from which they came, but the lemon hibiscus stood out as particularly refreshing. All of the restaurantís sorbets and ice creams are house-made.
If I had to choose a favorite dessert, I would probably go with the strawberry soup, but in truth, all of the desserts are so uniformly splendid that there is not a weak one to be eliminated.
And as if the positively spectacular food werenít enough, the enchanting setting further endears this restaurant to me. The light airiness of the dining room lends a pleasant, summery feel to Washington Park. The leather and velvet banquettes and rattan chairs are stylish yet comfortable. In the back of the dining room, Waxman reigns supreme in his California-style open kitchen with lovely painted tiles. The relatively compact size of the kitchen surprised me, considering the number of guests that the restaurant could hold.
I wish I could import the ceiling of Washington Park to my home. It features divinely gorgeous moldings both along the border of the ceiling, where the ceiling meets the wall, and in the center of the ceiling. It is so beautiful that I had to inquire about it. I found out that the moldings pre-date the restaurant, which came as no surprise to me. Washington Parkís attention to detail, which can be observed in its intricate moldings, gold-leafed china, and delicately patterned silverware, can almost be termed old-fashioned. To me, that is one of the factors that distinguishes Washington Park and makes it stand out in a crowd. Quite an achievement for a place that opened its doors a mere three months ago. This is one to watch, folks.
Address: 24 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY
Attire: Casually elegant to dressy
Reservations: Two weeks in advance recommended.
Child-friendly: It doesnít seem to be the sort of place meant for children, at least not young children.
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