Saturday, April 05, 2014

back to blogging & thoughts on park restaurant

It's been a solid year since I've updated. To bring you up to speed, I'm now less than a month away from finishing my undergraduate studies, have decided to take the next year off, and am seriously considering pursuing culinary school. The details for these plans are in the works, but still - this is a big leap from where I was last year. It goes without saying that there have been ups and downs, but I'm excited to face the next chapter of my life.

As for the blog itself, I've made a few minor changes, including the layout and the scope of content. Although there will still be heavy emphasis on food, cooking, and restaurant reviews, I'm expanding its horizons to include posts on travel, opinion/rants, and what I'm going to be filing under "life/other" - putting the "miscellaneous" into "miscellanny". 

Now that general housekeeping is out of the way, let's talk about Park, a restaurant in Westmount run by Chef Antonio Park. I follow Chef Park on Instagram and am often awed by the beautiful presentation of the omakase sushi and sashimi platters. Also, I'm a fan of his use of organic and sustainably sourced ingredients. Based on online reviews (Yelp, Urbanspoon) and blogs, people seem to love or hate the place. A lot of the hype says Park offers some of the best sushi in town. Some criticisms I heard included good-but-overpriced food and poor service. 

I went twice recently - the first time, we caught the Saturday brunch menu, albeit unintentionally. We wanted sushi and failed to realize that Park doesn't serve sushi for Saturday lunch (if you make reservations by phone, they let you know, but I had booked via OpenTable). Womp womp. We had made the trek, so we decided to stay and eat. The place itself is nice and bright,  and feels spacious even though the square footage isn't ample - the restaurant has high ceilings, with an industrial-meets-woodshop-meets-modern-deco feel.

Between four people, we ordered the deconstructed salad for two, the japchae with chicken, and the special of the day - braised beef shoulder served with fried polenta and topped with a fried egg. Presentation was quite beautiful for all three, but we ultimately walked away from brunch feeling underwhelmed and disappointed. 

The salad came with three dressings - sweet (sweet potato), tart (yuzu), and creamy (basil), and had wonderful variety, including but not limited to: mixed greens; shredded carrot and daikon; quinoa and beet salad; roasted mixed nuts; kimchi; olives; pulses. I enjoyed the concept, which is very DIY and customizable. I like to interact with my food, you know? The salad ingredients were fresh and tasted good, but I found the balance of the dressings to be the best part of the dish. 

The japchae was fine - good flavour, but a bit skimpy on the chicken. The yam noodles were slightly overdone and too soft. All around good, but nothing about this dish caught my attention. 

I was eagerly anticipating the final dish, but it ultimately was the biggest letdown of the three. The polenta was beautiful - crisp on the outside, creamy in the middle. The egg was lovely and soft. The baby greens were nice and crisp. Nothing on the plate was superfluous. However, while the meat was tender and juicy, it was so exceedingly salty that I could barely bring myself to take a third bite. Even with the polenta, it was almost too salty to bear. At a restaurant like Park, this was a disappointing, rookie mistake. It would have been such an amazing dish otherwise. 

That being said, we still wanted to try the sushi, which really is Park's main selling point, IMO. We rescheduled and headed over for lunch on Friday. As a general disclaimer, I'm no sushi expert. Having grown up in Toronto, I feel like I haven't been exposed to really good sushi, like what the BC kids are always raving about. That being said, here are my general thoughts on the lunch sushi platter:

Overall, quite excellent. I'm not exactly sure if I was expecting it to be life changing (seriously, a lot of hype around Park), but it was a solid experience. The nigiri sushi had great balance between fish and rice, and melted in the mouth easily. The maki had grilled salmon, cucumber, and avocado, with a creamy basil sauce and a flavourful dark sauce (reminiscent of unagi sauce) drizzled over. Ultimately, I preferred the nigiri to the maki as the rolls were honestly too large, making it awkward and difficult to chew. While the flavours in the maki rolls were great, I found the texture a bit too mushy. 

While I didn't sample the sashimi appetizer myself, the feedback I heard was that the ponzu sauce was somewhat too tart, and the fish itself was layered in the wrong order - rather than having a row layered from light to rich in flavour, the salmon was at the top. When it came to dessert, we checked out the menu, but nothing sounded particularly appealing (the white chocolate mousse and the yuzu meringue tart seemed like the most creative of the lot, but we didn't try them so I have no actual feedback to offer). Finally, between both trips to Park, I didn't find any problems with service (maybe the people raging about this online just got unlucky - though I imagine dinner service must be more hectic). The waiters were friendly, helpful, and prompt. 

So, bottom line. The prices are okay - definitely not cheap, but if you go for lunch, it won't break the bank. Pros: fresh ingredients, friendly service, quality sushi. Cons: technical errors, lack of attention to detail, and nothing spectacular or innovative in a lot of the dishes we sampled. The omakase looks much more promising in this department. However, I think the fact that the dishes were inconsistent in their execution is a negative reflection of the restaurant. If you go to Park, order the omakase if it's in your budget. If not, get sushi. And if it's Saturday brunch, don't even bother - reschedule and go some other time.