Unless you're Oprah, owning up to flaws in front of strangers is akin to drawer-dropping, kind of like having a piece of spinach stuck to your soul. If I were a normal critic, unfettered and unmoved by memories (or the track record of those I'm asked to judge), I wouldn't now be exposing my Joe Boxers. But alas, like Dorian Gray, John Ashcroft, and your last boyfriend, I come with a past -- one very easily and vividly recalled. And I'll admit: Too often it colors my perceptions, altering them with the same eerie expertise that Kevyn Aucoin uses to transform Oprah for her cover shoots.
If I were truly objective, I doubt that I'd find sitting in a booth at The Park as appealing as I do. I know I'd marvel at the décor, since the restaurant outdoes every other new grand hangout in its swift, conclusive obliteration of the outside world. With a soaring dracaena as its central totem, the Park is a high-ceilinged, contemporary El Morocco for those who nightly head to cafés but would never refer to themselves as society.
Yes, here is yet another spot so immediately popular that it's easy for those who don't consider themselves popularity-contest winners to take potshots at it. But for me, there is something notable that sets the Park apart from Hudson Cafeteria, Lot 61, or Canteen, places that appear to be the competition. It's not the staff, though they're more exotically handsome than anyone in Paper Magazine's annual compendium of 50 Beautiful People. Nor is it the ambient amber lighting. And it's not the music, because it's often too loud too early, though the selection -- more sultry funk than rap, more R&B than hip-hop -- is a tip-off.
It's the crowd. A cursory look around the room might lead one to assume those gathered here are merely the usual collection of leather-pants-wearing, blond-streak-having Jimmy Choo-shoe fanciers. But there are frequent shocks of silver-gray curls among this bunch, bodies a bit more maturely curved, eyes a little wiser -- often wearing glasses when it's menu time -- and faces that have discovered that collagen can be much more effective than cologne. You might even hear the squeal of a child or two.
So who are they? Do you remember Area? If you don't, find an acquaintance who does. He or she will corroborate: It was the savviest, smartest club that ever existed. Paradise Garage had a greater D.J., the Mudd Club offered exclusivity, and you could get laid at Nell's in less time than it took to blow-dry your hair. But none of these venues radiated the originality, sophistication, or non-yuppie thrill of New York in the eighties like Area, which startlingly, wittily, and often beautifully altered its décor every six weeks with a new "installation." Whether the theme was Red, Religion, or Natural History, Area was intoxicating, a rare instance when ingeniousness and seduction were essential ingredients in nightlife. No surprise, then, that it became a favorite for all the people who made Stephen Saban's column in the original Details read like a modern version of Balzac's The Human Comedy. Many of them were the gallery owners, shopkeepers, craftsmen, restaurateurs, performers, and journalists who first adventurously colonized SoHo, the East Village, and TriBeCa. They gave a city left for dead in the seventies new life. And they knew how to have a good time.
Maybe because most everything that came after seemed formulaic (Palladium was big and expensive but not clever), when Area closed, these folks scattered, and for me, New York became a bit less vibrant. However, one of Area's principal owners and imagineers was Eric Goode -- who happens to be one of the principal owners of the Park (Sean MacPherson is the other), which explains why it looks the way it does. And his ownership is probably the reason many of these interesting-but-no-longer-coltish folks have collectively reappeared. Perhaps it's a generational thing, or I may simply be wishing it, but their aggregate, unpushy self-confidence has given the room the kind of it's-so-cool-to-live-here familiarity a longtime native feels walking into Odeon or Il Cantinori. It also seems to calm the young'uns who enter the dining room. (The bar, however, is a zoo.)
I don't mean to give the menu short shrift, because it gets better with each trip. The gumbo will never be dense enough to live up to its name, but it's a lively, devourable chicken-and-andouille soup. The foie gras is thick and lusty, the wild-bass tartare tasty but cut too chunky, the suckling pig good but too oily. It's too easy to mess up your charmeuse shirtfront eating beets and goat-cheese crostini, but the grilled lobster tail is terrific, tender with a faint perfume of garlic. Sweet roasted lobster is bathed in a nice balance of citrus and vanilla. The artichoke only looks terrific (though the stem is delicious). But the wild-mushroom salad is lovely through and through.
The rare tuna is often short on poivre, but it's real fine when the balance is right. The linguini with oven-roasted tomatoes is winning: light but aromatic and richly flavorful -- as is the ample veal shank. The pressed chicken is crisp but overcooked. The branzino will recall fond memories of Barocco. The roasted halibut would have to be cooked a bit less in order to make it crispy but tender, and the bouillabaisse needs a lot more rouille and fire to make it work, but table-hop for more than a minute and your sharp, flinty porterhouse steak will surely be hijacked by your dinner companions. Banana beignets are a neat surprise. The hot apple crisp and the cookies are satisfying. None of the other desserts are. In fact, the angel-food cake would be equally at home on a potter's wheel.
I don't mind. I'm comfortable. And smiling. And prejudiced. People who aren't my age, or who don't have a similar past, may not be as eager to play in the Park. Think of it as Mercer Kitchen for seniors, or Bar Pitti moved indoors. Oprah would like it here. But as long as they're nice at the door, go at least once around the Park. Tell them I sent you, memories and all.
The Park, 118 Tenth Avenue, near 17th Street (212-352-3313). Open every night, 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. Appetizers, $6 to $18; entrées, $15 to $30. A.E., D.C., M.C., V.