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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, gilded...you 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.
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.
SILLY SIDE STORY
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.