February 24, 1992 | Vintage Insatiable
Park Avenue Café: Little Chop Around the Corner

          An architect I know says he judges the success of a project by its new ideas per square foot. On that scale, Park Avenue Café could win the solid-gold whisk with mizumi-leaf clusters. Let less resilient entrepreneurs lament the sluggish economy. Veteran Alan Stillman leaps into the flames on a bungee of optimism. With wunderkind David Burke at the range, Stillman’s Park Avenue Café is already selling out nightly to the gentry of our most affluent Zip Code. “This is our neighborhood dive,” I overhear one sleek matron crow to another.

          I suspect neither man ever sleeps. Or if he does, there’s a flashlight bedside to record brainstorms that strike in the night. Let’s put tangerines, kumquats and nuts in the bread basket. Let’s offer all you can drink of eight wines, the cellar-master’s selections of the evening, for $21.50 per person. How about framing the menu like a high-school diploma ready to hang on the wall? Let’s roll the food in and the debris out like a patient etherized upon the table. Invent a new dish and apply for a trademark. Say we’re rehearsing and give a 25 percent discount. How silly. How clever. How disarming.

          “Please be patient,” the menu appeals. And we will, for Burke’s tornado of creativity is delivering mostly remarkable food. Presumably, a few weeks of rehearsal will tame the skittishness of the serving crew. They’ve already dropped the menu frame. But I’ll hate to see the discount go. With appetizers up to $11 and entrées $18.5 to $25.50, three courses and a bottle of wine will run $120 for two with tip (if you can resist irresistible sides of hashed mushrooms and garlic-bacon-noodle cake). Yes, we forked out more than that for Burke’s fare at River Café, but we won’t be getting sunsets silvering the waves and painting the skyline scarlet while we hug the ground on East 63rd Street.

          So snicker if you will at the playfulness -- “Yes, Ray, we know it’s not red,” says the note beside the rosé on the wine list. Or the laminated ticket that comes with the swordfish chop, cleverly sculpted from a giant collarbone -- like a duck at the Tour d’Argent. Mine was No. 206, moist and full of flavor.

          There’s some awkwardness at the door, looking for the coat check. And then a shock. All the expensive Japanese wood-work and gold-leaf walls of the late Huberts have been ripped away for American folk art, floors bared for the rolling-cart service, half-open blinds exposing the room to passerby. Green leather booths and custom-sewn napkins, the borrowed whirligigs and carved eagle (VOTE EARLY, VOTE OFTEN), even the warm, welcoming show of breads and sheaves of wheat can’t blur the feel of an upscale luncheonette. Unleashed, Burke can dangle over the edge, as when he served petits fours at the River Café on a toy black iron stove with charred cinnamon “logs.” Or here, when he glues a white-chocolate truffle to sticky chocolate ganache inside the cover of the milk-chocolate-crème-brûlée dish.

          So far, he has kept the concepts “tame” (his word) and the tableware amusing. Every plate is different. Turnip flan with bits of corn and foie gras, one evening’s offering, comes in an eggshell riding on the back of a pottery rabbit. Asparagus risotto is served in a mug that looks like a bunch of asparagus, its handle a pink bow. “Martha Stewart,” grumped one early critic, and Burke promptly dubbed the dish “risotto by Martha.” Cute? Too cute? Just cute enough? I forgive anything when the food is good. And even the bread is great: peppery corn sticks, buttery Park House rolls, crusty baguette studded with potato cubes.

          Try tuna and salmon tartare, brilliantly seasoned with hints of mustard and horseradish, frosted with crème fraîche and caviar, flanked by trellis potato chips. House-smoked salmon atop corn blini, spit-roasted duck in a heady broth with vegetables and a beggar’s-purse dumpling (a duck bone as its handle), and sublime scallops with caramelized edges on red-wine-braised oxtail are equally splendid. White-bean-and-roast-garlic soup is swirled into black-bean soup, a smoked-shrimp quesadilla in escort. (And if you’re economizing, any two of these starters would make the perfect supper.) Burke’s duck-and-chicken pie is rich with wild mushrooms, asparagus and potato in a biscuit-like crust. The swordfish chop, seared salmon with ginger and “sand dollars” (fried lotus-root chips), or veal steak in a mustard-seed crumb crust on salsify and leek works better than crabmeat-stuffed sole, or roast chicken that is actually a boned breast molded into a dome. Not on the menu, a dazzling vegetable plate is just $15.

          The banana split isn’t excessive enough for me, but the carrot-cake soufflé is luscious, sorbets are first-rate, and the miniature baked sweets for all to share make a tempting coda. Sample peanut brittle from the glass elephant at the door as you exit.

          Making money has been a cinch for Alan Stillman (Smith & Wollensky, Manhattan Ocean Club, the Post House), but he’s always hungered for critical applause. If Burke can keep his reckless imagination in check, this may be the moment.

Park Avenue Café, 100 East 63rd Street 212 644-1900

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