Sunday, April 27, 2008

Park 52 Review

posted by Elizabeth Fama

Kleiner's signature: stenciled walls and copious red velvet.

Note: If you can't slog through a long blog entry, feel free to scroll to the bottom for the QUICKIE REVIEW.

Here is the...

You should go to Park 52. All of you. You'll have a good time, and then we can talk about what you liked and didn't like. It turns out that it's not my style place, but I can tell that many people will love it, and (hooray!) that's progress.

Park 52 feels like some of Jerry Kleiner's other restaurants in many ways (Red Light, Opera, and Room 21). I don't care if it's a little formulaic, though. The fact is, Hyde Park deserves a Red Light. Hyde Park deserves a Room 21. The interior is trendy but not off-putting. The food is upscale, but rich and hearty, with large portions. Maybe too large. (If any restaurateur asked me, "What's the one thing the average Hyde Parker wants in a dining experience?" I'd have to say with a discouraged sigh, "Large portions.")

When you enter, the space is open with long sight lines, a bar on the south wall, and stairs on the east wall that lead enticingly to what must be private dining rooms. Without a foyer I'm not sure the revolving door will be defense against the cold when we're having a sub-zero, gusty night, but maybe they'll hoist up even more of the ubiquitous red velvet in the entryway during winter months. There are colorful light fixtures with gigantic fabric shades. The velvet upholstery on the chairs makes them look like Pee Wee Herman dominoes, with large, multi-colored buttons. The walls are ragged, stenciled, stippled, name it, the faux finisher has done it. There are celebrity photos on the walls -- not my favorite art, but like everything at Park 52, the aim is not for "unique" but rather "highly serviceable."

The menu is simple, with few choices, which is better than too many. I've heard people describe the genre as American Bistro, which must mean high-class bar food. There are honkin' sized cuts of beef with enormous cottage fries, chicken, salmon, and a pile of short ribs slathered in BBQ sauce (with a few apologetic strands of carrot slaw). The only vegetable sold a la carte is succotash, which I count as a starch. I'm not a wine expert, but the list seems respectable -- decent choices in what might be considered a mid-range price. I had a margarita, and it was unfortunately a mix.

Our waitress, Nia H., was top notch. In contrast to Peter Rossi's waiter a week ago, Nia did everything she was supposed to do, in the right order, with grace and relaxed charm.

I ordered the seared tuna with apple crisp salad as my appetizer, and my husband and I shared the spinach salad with dried cherries and jicama. The tuna was perfectly cooked, with a thin crust of breading on the outside. The apple crisps were not crispy in the least, but they were cute, and the dressing on their little bed of endive was fresh and nice. The cherries were a sweet addition to an otherwise unremarkable spinach salad. For my main course I ordered the roasted whitefish because Nia said it was one of the lighter things on the menu. It was beautiful to look at, but overcooked, and the presentation didn't make it seem light. For one thing, the bed of curly fries was too tough to break into along with a forkful of fish, so I hacked away at it separately. I think you can see in the photo that the curly fries are sort of a "block" under the fish. Perhaps it was fried and shaped ahead of time. The spinach between the fish and fries was salty.

My husband ordered the special: a grilled lamb loin with an eggplant-wrapped pillow of goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes. Now, I'm a sucker for anything with eggplant, goat cheese, or sun-dried tomatoes, and the combination was wonderful (and of course rich). The lamb was exactly medium-rare, as he ordered it, and it was a nice cut of meat, too. That's a dish that could survive on the regular menu.

Our kids ordered the NY strip with cottage fries, the lone vegetarian offering (fettuccine with wild mushrooms and asparagus -- richer than it sounds and a near-miss "meh" sort of dish), and that huge blob of short rib Hot Mess.

We were so full we didn't even contemplate dessert. But given that Istria Cafe is almost on our way home, we broke down and got a couple of gelati, sat in the outdoor seating, and enjoyed the rest of a warm spring evening together.

I was so intrigued that Kleiner decided to put pictures of Audrey Hepburn in the women's room of two of his restaurants that I asked my husband, "Did you notice if the photos in the men's room were the same as the ones in Room 21?" He said, "No, here they were softer core, not full frontal nudity." My fourteen year-old son immediately agreed. Yes, readers, it turns out Jerry thinks that women want to see high class images of Audrey Hepburn while they pee, and men (and boys) want nameless females in lingerie spreading their legs for the camera.

Park 52 is a very nice addition to the neighborhood, and well done overall, but not my style. The menu is upscale enough to count as trendy, but the food is hearty, not fussy. The interior design is nouveau bordello. The food was presented well, the ingredients were good, the waitress and busboys were helpful. The downside is that other than the salads, the dishes are almost uniformly heavy, salty, and rich -- not something I want to eat often. The prices are high ($7 for a salad, $12-14 for an appetizer, up to $28 for a main) but no higher than this experience would be anywhere in the south loop or north side. If you're like me, you'll be quite happy with a salad, an appetizer, and a glass of wine. And next time, if the coast is clear, I'm ducking into the men's room to take a gander at the art.


Stephen said...

Excellent review.

My wife and I also made it to Park 52 this weekend (Friday, actually), and Elizabeth's experience seems very close to my own (too bad I missed the men's room, apparently). Our waitress was gregarious, but a little absent minded. Once she stopped by the table and left before taking our drink order, which was her announced purpose (she did like to talk). But, it was more of an amusement than anything else.

The food was great, the wine selection perfect and - as advertised - the portions huge. In fact, our waitress told my wife she would need a take home bag for her order because it was so large. How could she know that despite my wife's small stature, she can really put it away (she is breast feeding after all). The waitress was a little embarassed when she picked up the empty plate, but there was no need :)

In all, a really nice experience. And being able to walk to a nice restaurant is really progress (although, we really do like La Petite Folie as well - if for nothing else, for the elegant strip mall dining experience). Because I'm not much on writing reviews, I'd just give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Peter Rossi said...

nice review and beautiful pics.

If park 52's food is so filling, I wonder how you guys found room for super rich ice cream? It must be that long walk home.

I love the idea of WALKING to a nice rest in our neighborhood and enjoying the walk home rather than being decanted into a car. Walking is good for the digestion.

I will return to park 52 to check out service (though it will be difficult to convince my family who were fairly ticked off by the indifferent service).

chicago pop said...

Thanks for the review, Elizabeth. We've got a reservation for mid-May. I'm looking forward to dining in the "nouveau bordello" atmosphere. (and checking out the bathroom art).

Peter Rossi said...

dont' get your hopes up re bathrooms. not even Vargas level

here is an interesting question: is Park 52 expanding demand for restaurants in HP or simply cannibalizing on existing demand?

Richard Gill said...

Peter -

I haven't yet been to Park 52, but based on what I've read in HPP about the cuisine and the prices, what in Hyde Park would Park 52 be cannibalizing? What in the neighborhood is comparable? Maybe, to some extent, Petit Folie, but not really. Anecdotal evidence suggests a large number of people from outside Hyde Park have been patronizing Park 52. Hey, isn't that what's supposed to happen?

I still must pinch myself at times, when I realize Hyde Park now has both a classy supermarket and a Kleiner bistro.

Well, phooey, I was going to avoid the whole restaurant discussion, but here's my "opposite poles" list of Hyde Park eateries. Everything else is somewhere in between, or I haven't been there.

Places I wouldn't go back to, even for free: Orly's; Leona's.

Places I would go back to at any time: Picolo Mondo, The Nile, Cedars, Medici, Florian, Valois, Calypso, Pizza Capri, Snail, Bar Louie.

There, I said it. Phew!

Otto said...

The only vegetable sold a la carte is succotash, which I count as a starch.


chicago pop said...

Places I wouldn't go back to, even for free: Orly's

Someone finally said it. Orly's is just plain scary. And they don't seem to have a clue about it.

LPB said...


I'm glad I'm not the only one who wouldn't go back to Orly's. After trying out their new deli menu, I had to ask how they've managed to stay in business for so long. What's with the Southwestern murals and 1970's rec room furniture??? If the food were even close to adequate, I'd accept the ambiance as kitschy. But, in the face of bad food, I find the environment genuinely frightening. Yikes!

Raymond said...

I've been meaning to get a bagel from Orly's ever since the great bagel debate we had here on this blog, but I haven't had the gumption to go in yet.

I need to bring a witness or something.

Elizabeth Fama said...

Wouldjalookit that, farinaceous is a real word. Otto makes me use my dictionary more than anyone else on this blog.

Anonymous said...

I used to live upstairs from Orly's. The quality of the food was never a problem for me, it was the speed of the service. Even when the place is totally empty (which is most of the time), it can take 20-30 minutes before someone finally emerges from the back room and takes your order. The front counter is just as bad. My girlfriend and I went by to get some corn muffins once, stood at the counter for 15 minutes, not one person ever came out to check and see if they had customers and we finally just left. I don't know how they stay in business either, since it's nearly always empty...

chicago pop said...

I don't know how they stay in business either, since it's nearly always empty.

80% of their business is catering to places like the U of C hospitals. So they really have little incentive to take care of you in the restaurant itself, or even to water the dying plants in the windows.

That place is stuck in the 70s ... a sort of R.J. Grunts that never quite got its groove on ...

erith1 said...

So they really have little incentive to take care of you in the restaurant itself

Call me a capitalist pig dog, but can't you always have more money? The only thing better than a successful catering business is a successful catering business coupled with a successful restaurant.

Em said...

a capitalist pig-dog? certainly not, that's just sensible, erith. and for the record (since i'm a 52 fan) tomatoes and green beans can be ordered as a side. and once they gave me spinach. =)