Park Avenue Winter: What’s Cooler Than Being Cool?
No restaurant has quite encapsulated the general Upper East Side vibe for me like Park Avenue Winter, executive chef Craig Koketsu’s swan song to seasonal American on 63rd and Park. The renovated Park Avenue Cafe multi-level multi-room space undergoes a 48-hour metamorphosis each season that completely changes the decor and the menu to reflect the approaching season.
Park Avenue Winter is warm and inviting, despite the wintry decor (think: ice baubles, crystal chandeliers, white leather, sprigs of evergreen and twiggy plants). Every element of the inspired space exudes restraint and refinement, a hallmark of UES dining (not to stereotype too severely or anything…). To be honest, it was a refreshing break from the oftentimes pretentiously ‘hipster’ downtown dining scene that refuses to use tableclothes, finds dishcloths suitable substitutes for napkins, and seems to fetishize over chalkboards and exposed brick. While not all these things are bad, they can get monotonous.
The food is meant to bring out the hearty and robust flavors of winter meats and fruits, focusing on venison, lamb, meatballs, creamy cheeses and chocolates, Scottish salmon, and root vegetables. I searched for unique flavors – focusing on the much-talked-about Carmellini Challenger (a toasted meatball slider), the crispy calamari and carrot salad, and the winter spice cake. The slider stole the show with a fat juicy and incredibly well-seasoned meatball perched on top of crispy crunchy toast, covered in cheese shreds, and paired with some sort of vegetable puree that added even more savory punch to the dish. I’d take this meatball over an ordinary burger slider any day. The crispy calamari salad married fresh and crisp vegetables with lightly breaded massive rounds of calamari, whole roasted peanuts, and a thai peanut dressing. It was refreshing and satisfying – a perfect light dining option or starter. The winter spice cake defined wintry desserts for me: creamy addictive brown butter ice cream dolloped over moist spice cake (that tasted like pumpkin bread plus every aromatic Christmas-time spice you could imagine) finished with homemade whipped cream in papery cannoli-like wrappings. Yes, it is as good as it sounds.
My oldest friend Diana, a willing and game dining companion, started with the citrusy cured lemon caesar salad, a dish that injected zing and zest into the popular classic. Her piece de resistance was the stout braised lamb shank with aged cheddar polenta and green apples. The lamb was so soft and so tender than no knife was needed to cut through the generous portion; the apples and cheddar polenta added savory and surprising notes to the lamb, spicing up an otherwise heavy and deeply flavorful dish. She finished off with the coconut caramel pannacotta, an almost tropical (and yes, slightly out of season) rendition of the traditional Italian dessert; it was good and correctly prepared, yet not particularly memorable.
All in all, the food at Park Avenue Winter was delicious (in a “wow, that really hit the spot” sort of way), sophisticated, and yet playful with flavor combinations. While it clearly strives mightily to reach the upper echelons of gastronomy, it falls just short in that the creative and tasty food impresses and inspires conversation yet doesn’t wow the way Brasserie, Perry St, and Del Posto do. Either way, Park Avenue Winter is classy and elegant, perfect for a business event, parents and grandparents visiting, or a pull-out-all-the-stops romantic date.