Epicurious Eating: Inn at the Park Restaurant
Haute meal at the inn
Published Thursday, 06-May-2010 in issue 1167
The contrast between food and atmosphere at Inn at the Park is like that of taking in a progressive techno band at a formal opera house. First-time visitors to the Inn will be surprised at the breadth of contemporary fare available, given the dining room’s classic élan that seems more a stage for retro suppers of beef Wellington and cherries royale than it does in quenching 21st Century appetites with titillating farm-to-table meals.
Located on the ground level of the historic Park Manor Suites, the gastronomy of yesteryear that was a mainstay here until less than a decade ago has been largely pushed aside by executive chef Tony Wilhelm and sous chef Brad Hightow. In doing so, they’ve incorporated organic meats, sustainable seafood and local produce into their seasonal menus, presented nightly to loungy melodies of a keyboardist and singer.
Surviving the restaurant’s culinary incarnations is prime rib served with au jus, horseradish cream and 90s-era garlic mashed potatoes, an obligatory gesture to longtime customers not quite ready to venture into things like espresso-dusted pork tenderloin or grilled veal chops paired with crayfish risotto. But when they do, such preparations that await are less daring than they are exquisite, shaped ultimately by Wilhelm’s French training and Hightow’s knack for West Coast cooking that acquired from working at Spago.
Dinner begins with a cloth-lined basket of skinny bread sticks and focacia served with addicting chive butter. It arrives to a table setting of stately plateware and cut-glass water goblets. From there, we encountered the only bump in the road with a duo of Maryland-style crab cakes that were harshly salted, or perhaps fraught with too much Old Bay Seasoning. Combined with pleasant chipotle butter sauce and wilted spinach, the salt burn persisted to the last bite; thus my demerit of a half star for food quality.
Spring peas played a starring role in a sweet, silky soup afloat with fresh lump crab. The puree’s gentle consistency lent itself to a soft-green outcome indicative of a young garden brimming with nutrients, or so it seems after accepting with open arteries the decadent wisps of cream used in the recipe.
My companion’s pork mulligatawny soup was lusciously sweet, too, thanks to reduced apple juice in the base and plenty of sugar-exuding maripoix (the French term for carrots, onions and celery combined). The absence of tamarind and coconut milk evident in traditional versions of this Anglo-Indian curry broth wasn’t missed. Instead, cubes of savory duroc pork added a memorable spin.
The Inn’s pesto salmon salad has been on the menu for a while – and for good reason. Fresh mixed greens with diced cucumber, avocado and tomatoes form the bedding for grilled, chunky salmon that sings to lemony pesto dressing. It’s a spa-like salad that seems fitting for slim, rich ladies who lunch together, but it works just swell for the merrymakers who come to the Inn for three-martini dinners.
From the wine list, I lucked out with Louis Latour pinot noir, a considerably fruitier and inkier juice compared to most pinots. Served above the ideal 57 degrees that reds should be poured, it nonetheless struck a perfect match to a marvelous hunk of beef tenderloin crowned with duck liver mousse and winter truffles. Fingerling potatoes, fresh asparagus and wine-truffle “essence” surrounded the meat, which the menu states as “Rossini” style. That would mean the steak is topped with foie gras, but the kitchen instead cheats with mousse to avoid protest from animal rights groups that have made life miserable for chefs serving goose livers in whole form.
My companion opted for “the chef’s whim,” which featured jumbo sea-fresh scallops plated with adroitly cooked risotto and a citrusy sauce sporting sweet, interesting complexity. The scallops came just as we like them, crispy on the outside, mostly pearly on the inside, but with translucent centers. Bravo!
For dessert we savored key lime coconut cake laced in pineapple sauce with raspberry swirls. To my delight, it reminded me of pineapple upside-down cake, but turned right-side up. The essence of lime was weak, but I didn’t mind. In addition, we polished off a martini glass filled with milk chocolate mousse and Chantilly cream – not too cloying and agreeably airy. All desserts are made in-house, including a highly touted tiramisu, which I’ve been sold on in so many other places that I’m still on retreat.
Our server, Jason, was friendly and organized, a veteran of the wait staff who performed intuitively rather than robotically. Meal courses were delivered with timeliness, silverware was replaced swiftly and we came away concluding that Inn at the Park knows where to draw the line between upscale and snooty. Just don’t let the antique-framed oil paintings on the walls fool you into thinking that you’ll be eating dull Victorian cuisine.