By Ethan Wolff
Theme restaurant. I cringe just thinking about it. If you canï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½t plate grub without hiding behind floating Martian heads and autographed guitars, maybe you should just stick to operating gift shops. This was the anxiety I carried to Park Avenue Summer, which come September will be known as Park Avenue Autumn. Yes, the Quality Meats peeps who have revamped the Park Avenue Cafï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ space have taken on the Sisyphean task of reinventing and re-launching a restaurant every three months, with a hardcore adherence to the season in play. New menus. New napkins. New matchboxes. New wall panels. Servers trading in their summery lemon-yellow shirts and white jeans for earthier tones. Banquette cushions flipping over from their current buttery colors to their auburn backsides. And before you know it, Park Avenue Winter is here.
Despite a thematic agenda thatï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½s as subtle as a sledgehammer, amazingly Park Avenue Summer doesnï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½t come across as gimmicky. The feel is instead of total immersion. The dining room is summer personified, the glow of late-afternoon Vineyard or Cape light picked up in glasses of rosï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ and falling soft on the high reeds that divide the space. The menu is rooted in summer classics like lobster salad, soft-shell crab, and spiced shrimp. From there come greenmarket-driven excursions into corn (now) and heirloom tomatoes (as soon as theyï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½re ready to be plucked from the vine). Even the wine list plays along, with a section dedicated to surfside vineyards and a summer-only house vintage bottled by the Hitching Post winery of Sideways fame.
The cooking staff has some aspirations, as evidenced by the tiled cube plunked right down in the middle of the kitchen, where a lucky party of ten gets to sample the action from ringside seats. Summer barbecues are represented with fire-roasted lamb chops, served with faro and cherries, which is a far cry from the hotdogs sloshing around the bottom of a Styrofoam cooler which represent summer barbecues for me. The kitchenï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½s take on requisite gazpacho is anything but typical. Spicy jellied tomato makes a bed for ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ber-smooth avocado topped by Peekytoe crab, with a little Bermuda onion to sharpen the edges. Served cold, the result is comprehensively refreshing, like a bottle of beer dragged across a forehead on a sultry day. My server tells me she loves the John Dory so much she wants to marry it, so itï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½s hard to be tempted by the lemon sole or filet mignon, no matter how good they sound. The Dory arrives in a simple arrangement of dark (balsamic vinegar) and light (the fish itself, plus an amazing egg battered in brioche). The presentation looks like a nautical chart, with summer truffles helping play the role of contour lines. The truffles also drive the taste, which synchs up perfectly between the vinegar, fish, and yolk. Another good match comes with rice pudding at dessert, when the smoky flavor of toasted rice mingles with sour cherries and a sweet cherry sorbet.
True to its moniker, the crowd is Park Avenue all the way, with young date-night couples interspersed with a loafered and Botoxic set. With the deft AvroKO design, thereï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½s room for wider appeal, however. Distressed wood from coastal Maine anchors the dining room and makes a surprising break from the stodgy limestone outside. Homemade rhubarb and lemongrass infusions await vodkas in a special ice bar off to the side. And someone has slipped ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½Yekermo Sewï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ from the Ethiopiques series onto the soundtrack. So, itï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ll be interesting to see what kind of clientele develops. As I walk out beneath the bright yellow awning that will be gone in a few weeks, Iï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½m not cringing. Iï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½m contemplating the trip back for autumn.
100 E. 63rd St. (Park Ave.) 212-644-1900 Upper East Side