The doctrine of seasonal correctness is as ingrained in the collective restaurant psyche, these days, as linen napkins, pre-dinner cocktails, and superfluous baskets of bread. Modern big-city diners expect a bounty of ramps on their early springtime menus, sweet peas and shellfish in summertime, and plenty of hand-foraged mushrooms and humanely slaughtered pork products in the fall. Now the owners of the newish establishment Park Avenue Autumn have taken these fashionable orthodoxies and turned them into a uniquely kitschy, singularly New York experience. Their restaurant (which was originally the Park Avenue Café) isn’t a restaurant in the usual monochromatic way. It’s a kind of revolving, seasonal diorama, replete with menus that change every three months or so, rotating waitstaff outfits (although the waiters themselves remain more or less the same), and even a changing décor, courtesy of the fashionable downtown restaurant-design firm AvroKO.
Six weeks ago, Park Avenue Autumn’s name was Park Avenue Summer, and the awning outside, on 63rd Street, was a breezy Popsicle yellow. Now the old name is gone, and that same awning is a dark, autumnal brown. The fuzzy, slightly withered cattail-like arrangement in the center of the dining room has been replaced by an arrangement of gnarled, slightly withered crab apples. The waiters wear toffee-colored aprons these days, instead of the yellow shirts that made them look like deckhands on some comically opulent Mediterranean yacht. Through assorted tricky designer techniques, the old walls (formerly yellow, like everything else, and hung with tortoise shells) have been replaced with panels of wood. Copper orbs dangle from the ceiling, along with a curious installation of poles suspended from rope slings. Someone at my table thought the wood-and-ropes design was meant to evoke the rustic spirit of country life. For others it brought to mind children’s monkey bars or spars on a sailing ship.
The logistics of this seemingly endless series of esoteric face-lifts (the restaurant will become Park Avenue Winter late next month, and Park Avenue Spring after that) are impressive to contemplate. But the real pressure in this kind of radical experiment falls on the chef. Last summer, Craig Koketsu, who is also the executive chef at Quality Meats, the recently opened steakhouse owned by the same group, managed to put together a menu filled with all sorts of surprising combinations. There were slices of fluke sashimi scattered with sunchoke chips, and fresh, slightly undersize soft-shell crabs sizzled in a crunchy tempura batter and served, inventively, with sticks of jícama, soft avocado, strawberries, and a spoonful of sesame aïoli. My portion of John Dory came to the table capped with a poached egg crusted with brioche and shavings of summer truffles, and that predictable old warhorse the salmon fillet was perfectly poached and plated on a helping of butter-rich, slightly vinegary whipped potatoes.
Autumn is the season of largesse, of course, so the new menu is consciously heavier and more bountiful than the old one. Koketsu has toiled in classical kitchens (he’s worked for Gray Kunz, among others), and he seems more at home with the fresher, more subtle flavors of summer. In struggling to convey the earthy richness of fall, he covers several of his new recipes with a carapace of fruit. I liked the rich, bisquelike butternut-squash soup, but my brown-butter-and-sage agnolotti could have done without the dose of Poire William sauce. The striped bass I sampled was flavored, not very successfully, with sugary Bartlett pears, and perfectly good roast chicken was buried, like Thanksgiving turkey, in cranberry-lemongrass sauce and a cloying, gourmet version of pumpkin tartlet. The excellent soft-shell crab has been replaced, on the new menu, with a soggy, overpriced version of lobster tempura ($22 as an appetizer, $44 for the entrée), and this time around, the wild Alaskan salmon is muffled in a “Waldorf”-style arrangement of walnuts, grapes, and celery-root purée.
The more-robust dishes tend to withstand this kind of artsy treatment better. In fact, many of them are very good. The new “Chops” section of the menu contains admirable, truncheon-size venison chops (scattered with pomegranate and pumpkin seeds) and a fine, though pricey ($41) bone-in veal chop caked with green-garlic bread crumbs and served with a jumble of sautéed mushrooms. The house lamb shank (dressed with mint, slightly stale pistachios, and saffron-flavored cauliflower) is a decent version of this overworked, often overlarge dish, and if you feel like blowing $48 on a steak, the sirloin strip, courtesy of the cows of California’s Brandt Farms, is as good as any in town. For game eaters, there’s also a tasty mess of quail, glazed with plenty of quince (your bird’s been “hunted,” according to the menu, “in the heart of the Hudson Valley”), plus a robust selection of side dishes, including greasy latkes (which replaced the lightly delicious crispy-potato dish of summertime) and a single, impressively large, “twelve-hour” roasted carrot.
What will the design gurus at AvroKO think of next? Will they hang beaver pelts from the ceiling? Will they dress the long-suffering waiters as Eskimos? Whatever happens, you can bet there will be plenty of people on hand to find out. On the nights I visited, the room was buzzing with a mix of elderly neighborhood grandees and food people (chefs, restaurant owners, sauce-stained critics) who’d made the trek uptown to see what all the fuss was about. For dessert, they ate decorative, seasonally appropriate items like a dense confit of Bartlett pears with crème caramel, and a block of brown-butter cake decorated with a twirl of chocolate. I liked the crumbly cranberry-and-almond cake, which comes with a little pot of cranberry brûlée and ice cream flavored with almonds. I’m not sure I liked the caramelized-banana crêpes covered in drifts of crushed bacon. But that’s okay. Like everything about this entertaining, slightly loopy restaurant, you have to applaud the effort.