Something in the Atmosphere (Not the Food) at the Park

“The worst thing is the guy has absolutely no sense of humor,” a tattooed young woman in a halter top was complaining to the bathroom attendant. “I’ve spent the whole evening telling jokes, and he didn’t laugh once. He just sat there cracking his knuckles and staring into space.”

She dropped a dollar in the basket. “See ya later!”

“Blind date!” said the attendant after she left. “Big mistake!”

People on disastrous blind dates, however, couldn’t wish for a better meeting place than the Park. For if you can’t shake him or her off in the enormous, packed bar, you can escape to one of six other spaces–two dining rooms, a large garden, a penthouse, a rooftop patio and a lounge–with a capacity for 1,050 people. It’s the first joint venture of Eric Goode (creator of Area, Time Café, Fez and Bowery Bar) and Sean MacPherson (of L.A. hot spots Bar Marmont and Jones), who have turned a 10,000-square-foot former taxi garage on the edge of industrial Chelsea into one of the most compelling and cleverly designed restaurants in the city.

If it weren’t for the crowds milling outside in the evening, you could walk right by without knowing it was there. The low, windowless, red-brick façade looks like it belongs to a topless bar. Inside, it’s like a California hunting lodge whose tenants have traveled the world, collecting lanterns from Indonesia, tiles from Mexico, amethyst geodes from Arizona, silk from the Orient and furniture from Italy. Under a skylight flanked by wooden beams, a 30-foot dracaena tree from Santa Barbara presides over the main dining room. The square green-leather banquettes are so comfortable you could sleep on them, and the tables are broad and generously spaced, set with paper placemats. Next door is a dark red lounge with scoop-backed wicker chairs, red glass-topped tables and stuffed parakeets and a peacock. But if it’s not too hot outside, the garden–which has redwood benches and a long wall made of giant wooden beams–is the place to be. Here under the wisteria and Japanese maples, the city seems very far away. When the sun goes down and the lanterns are turned on, the effect is magical, prompting a collective gasp from the diners.

“I feel I never left California,” said a friend who’d flown in from L.A. that afternoon.

And even though the Park predictably draws a hip young crowd on the prowl, there are also families with young children and a gray-haired contingent that surely hung out at Area two decades ago. With such an appealing setting, it’s too bad that the food isn’t better and the service is so erratic. (“Better bring a book,” one of my guests said when I invited her for dinner–she’d waited an hour and a half for her food earlier that week. On this occasion, the food came out pretty quickly, though I asked six times for a bottle of Pellegrino and never got it.)

Things get off to a good start with a crusty round loaf of bread and green-olive tapenade. (At lunch one day–which is delightful in the cool, uncrowded dining room–the bread was even served hot.) The food at the Park is at its best when it is at its simplest, such as a plate of perfectly ripe heirloom tomatoes sprinkled with olive oil, salt and pepper. It was one of those dishes that makes you wish summer lasted another six months, even at 98 degrees. The ceviche of bass also had a clean, clear flavor, made with plenty of lime juice and cilantro and served with flatbread. Two other first courses that worked were the yellow-tomato gazpacho, which had a pleasantly peppery undertone, and a bowl of plump mussels simmered with slices of chorizo in a smoky broth.

But much of the cooking at the Park is unfocused. A salad of cooked treviso, grapefruit and jícama doesn’t come together, nor, at lunch, did the plate of unwieldy heads of radicchio sprinkled with a rich aged balsamic and plonked down on a bed of sautéed treviso. Couldn’t they at least have pulled the leaves off the stalks? Sliced steak and crisp baby artichokes were tucked under a hedge of arugula and shards of Parmesan–a pleasant combination, if haphazard in execution (the dish was better at lunch one day when the steak and artichokes were hot).

Chef Gabe Sorgi formerly worked at Beacon, which is known for its wood-burning oven; he has one here, too. But the cedar-planked trout with celery and capers doesn’t really work, even though the fish is moist and properly cooked. Farm-raised salmon picked up some flavor from the oven, but it was served on arugula with lentils, strips of lemon and red peppers–not a success. (It was supposed to come on frisée, which would have been worse, but the person ordering asked for an alternative.) An interesting balsamic foie-gras vinaigrette couldn’t make up for the sea bass, which was badly overcooked, as was the grilled whole branzino, a mush on a bed of orzo. Tagliarini with roasted tomatoes appeared without a trace of basil, its blandness relieved, perversely, by slices of raw garlic.

The eavesdropping can sometimes make up for the food. One evening, the conversation at the next table was as reminiscent of L.A. as the setting.

“Do you mind if we call you Sarah Jessica Parker?” one of the men asked the waitress.

“You won’t be the first,” she said.

After she left, he turned to his friends and said, “The show I’m doing is driving me crazy. If there’s nudity, you can’t be within 50 feet of a church. So the police keep coming in, and we just keep on paying $50 fines.”

“They don’t arrest you?”

“No. They like the show!”

Pastry chef Elizabeth Flynn’s desserts round off the meal on a high note. They include a quivering panna cotta dotted with passion fruit and surrounded by toasted coconut shavings, a lemon ricotta cake topped with juicy raspberries, and a rhubarb strawberry crisp just like Mom used to make.

My friend from California, a film director, finished up with an espresso. “I once had dinner with Michael Caine at one of the restaurants he owns in London,” he said. “He told me, ‘If you give the customers good bread when they come in and good coffee when they go out, they may forgive the bits in the middle.'”

But the Park is so much fun–particularly for people-watching–that it’s not hard to forgive the bits in the middle.

THE PARK

*

118 10th Avenue

352-3313

Dress: Cool

Noise level: Fine

Wine list: Short, reasonably priced

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Main courses, lunch, $12 to $24; dinner, $15 to $30

Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday; Saturday and Sunday brunch, 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Dinner: 6 p.m. To 1 a.m., Monday through Sunday

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor

Something in the Atmosphere (Not the Food) at the Park