Not since Dolly Levi descended the steps of the Harmonia Gardens has a return to a restaurant been so boisterously chronicled. In fact, it’s a bit disappointing to arrive at Washington Park and not find the waiters singing and dancing, and to see Jonathan Waxman – the chef behind the eighties hot spot Jams – clad in a freshly stained apron instead of having put on his Sunday best. Too bad David Gest couldn’t orchestrate more than one comeback at a time.
Liza should only wind up with audiences as satisfied as these. For all the drama inherent in this chef’s saga, when you’re hungry, who cares? Do you want to reminisce or to eat? Waxman isn’t looking to set up a roadside stand along memory lane. He’s come to cook. How swell that his desire once again matches his potent skills. But he has to do a few high kicks in order to overcome some formidable obstacles. The space at 24 Fifth Avenue has always been a mess – its claustrophobic street-level café is virtually severed from a cavernous and noisy L-shaped dining room, with a back seating area built around a staircase to the basement.
These structural flaws now seem hardly bothersome. Washington Park’s mellow yellow tones help (though soundproofing wouldn’t hurt). But it’s the staff who truly brighten up the surroundings. Not only does their affability belie a depth of knowledge and a commendable sense of anticipation even at the 11 p.m. “remember me?” hour, but somehow these men and women have figured out how to appear comfortable within this unwieldy domain, and their ease is highly infectious.
Though California cuisine eventually devolved into eccentricities like kiwi-and-lime-rickey coulis, its true spirit was forged by chefs passionate about the quality of their ingredients and the way judicious pairings could reveal fresh flavors. Waxman not only rekindles this appreciation for the wonderfully unadulterated, he ignites anticipation by recalling another hallmark of that cuisine: nightly menu adjustments based on market availability. So elegant foie gras is offset by the spartan clarity of white asparagus one night, and more glamorously contrasted with piquant papaya, mango, and peppers the next. Addictive dragon-tongue beans and a mousseron of mushrooms form a bed under rich, juicy duck confit. The mousseron (this time featuring the meaty hen-of-the-woods) then reappears in a velvety pasta. Glistening chunks of lobster mate with fava beans as deliciously as they do with ramps. Should you fear that the sweet, lightly charred jumbo shrimp on lemon-cucumber salad won’t be there on your next visit, take heart: Waxman’s trademark red-pepper pancake with smoked salmon and caviar can offer worthy salvation. This is not nostalgia – it’s classic.
The dizzying roundelay continues with entrées. I sampled a dozen fish variations, and grouper shone with wilted greens and lemon butter as brightly as it did with crunchy fresh peas, carrots, and rose beurre blanc. The snapper was equally good when served with flat beans in lemon oil, or with asparagus and fiddlehead ferns; the same went for the halibut, first dressed with brash rapini, then with braised spring onions. But then one innocent soul ordered devastating, potato-chip-crisp soft-shell crabs in mizuna and salsa. Many will mourn this dish’s “passing” come fall. Some may actually weep.
Pork porterhouse was a new treat for us. Got friends who don’t eat sweetbreads? Sneak ‘em a taste. Say it’s pompano – they’ll like it, until you start laughing. Other red meats are not nearly as focused. Rib eye should be more pungent. Duck breast was unaccountably submerged in red wine, and the veal blanquette was flat. But because veal Milan-style really isn’t Milan style (it’s not thin enough), it’s the best version of an overrated dish I’ve ever had. Waxman’s signature dish – chicken and fries – is perfect, if the kitchen undercooks it a bit. Ask. You won’t be the first.
I greedily wish the dessert menu would never change, so the rhubarb cobbler, strawberry-and-banana parfait, chocolate angel-food cake, and banana tart would always be there for me. But we should trust Jonathan Waxman’s winning versatility. I don’t know how he is with singles at the bar, but as for cooking, like Ms. Levi, he’s quite a matchmaker.
Washington Park 24 Fifth Avenue (212-529-4400); Dinner, nightly, 5:30 to 11:00 p.m. Appetizers, $12 to $16; entrées, $23 to $32. All major credit cards.