Sunday, December 23, 2012

PARK


Since it's opening this year, praise has been extraordinarily high for chef Antonio Park's new restaurant - Park. The way people talk about it, you'd think he's reinvented the wheel. On the heels of the notorious Au Pied de Cochon and Joe Beef omissions from Maclean's 50 Best Restaurants in Canada list we've heard people go as far as to boldly express disapproval over Park's omission from enRoute's coveted Canada's Best New Restaurants 2012 list. Recently, Park was named "Most Awe-Inspiring" in the Montreal Gazette's Top Restaurants of 2012 by fine dining critic Lesley Chesterman and chef Antonio Park was the second place winner in the Montreal leg of the annual, country-wide Gold Medal Plates cooking competition, which raises money for our national olympic team. We've read chef Park's Twitter feed as he shares positive feedback from fellow chefs, food writers, bloggers and celebrities who've endorsed his food, telling their legions of friends and followers that no trip to Montreal is complete without a visit to this little restaurant and sushi counter on Victoria just south of Sherbrooke. The hype machine appeared to be in full effect.

The first time we ate chef Park's food was not at his own restaurant, but rather at Kaizen on Ste Catherine Street at the opposite end of Westmount. A friend insisted we join him for dinner there despite our overt apprehension; we had vowed never to return after an especially poor meal we ate there shortly after chef Tri Du left. "There's a new chef" our friend proclaimed assuring us that the food there had never been better. As it turned out that new chef was Antonio Park. Our meal that night was severely inconsistent, dishes were either spectacular or dreadful, black or white but no in between. Regular menu items like the nigiri and maki rolls failed to impress time after time that night, we remember the past-its-prime urchin we were served tasting like a urinal smells. On the other hand, the absurdly expensive chef's specials our friend kept ordering were accomplished and delicious. Epic and pricey plates with what appeared to be every luxury ingredient the kitchen could conjure made a big impression. Chilean sea bass with morel mushrooms, O-toro with caviar and Kobe beef with truffles were first-rate but objectively speaking, with ritzy ingredients like these any cook worth their salt could make a piece of moldy plywood taste like heaven. We left that night with a sense that the chef was unquestionably talented but clearly young, and eager to impress. What lacked, we felt, was a touch of editing and more focus on the menu's fundamentals than the night's specials. The meal was good but expensive, and not persuasive enough to abandon our preferred sushi counter.

Fast forward roughly 4 years to the present and the word around town is that the best sushi and sashimi in Montreal can now be found at a restaurant called Park in Westmount - somehow we thought, that sounds very familiar.  It wouldn't be long before we connected the dots and realized that Park was the creation of the same promising chef who's cooking our friend had introduced us to years earlier. If time had graced this chef with the wisdom and maturity required to exploit his talent and edit himself we felt we were sure to be impressed.

On a recent night with an irresistible craving for sushi and very high hopes, we seized the opportunity to finally try Park for ourselves. We arrived to a very dimly lit restaurant only accessible from the yoga, gym and spa complex it's attached to. It occurred to us that the semi-captive crowd the adjacent business provides must surely influence the restaurant's menu to a certain extent - after our visit we feel this hypothesis was pretty astute. The descriptions of menu items provided by our waitress were peppered with buzz-words like "low-sodium", "sustainable" and "organic". Although we applaud chef Park for his zealot approach to sustainable fishing practices (only buying line-caught fish and not encouraging overfishing or long-line fishing), our waitress's descriptions were long-winded, borderline pretentious and came off feeling a little bit like a telemarketing pitch table-side. Park's food philosophy is very admirable but one that's executed just as successfully at other Montreal restaurants with a simple note or addition of the ocean-wise symbol on the menu rather than a dictated manifesto.

We looked over the chalkboard menu noticing that the appetizers section was seriously lacking diversity, counting 3 salads and 2 soups followed by a sashimi plate and nigiri plate that were both condensed portions of the mains we had intended to order. The third salad on the menu was labelled "deconstructed salad for two". When we asked our waitress for a description of this salad she replied, verbatim: "It's hand-julienned vegetables and mango all served separately on a plate with dressing on the side". We were dumbfounded. "Hand-julienned"?! You can't be serious - as opposed to what, exactly? Were we expected to be impressed that a cook in a restaurant cut the fruits and vegetables with a knife? If the regulars here or the crowd from the surrounding neighborhood feel that "hand-julienned" vegetables are something to be impressed by or that not having to ask for omissions, substitutions or items on-the-side when making their order represent value because they could avoid appearing fussy or finicky that's fine, the customer's always right. But the notion that what is essentially a 20$ plate of mise en place that you're required to dress yourself is something to be excited about is quite simply, egregious.


After telling her that it was our first visit, our waitress let us know that if it interested us, chef Park prides himself on preparing custom menus designed around peoples likes and dislikes. She also offered us the Omakase, a Japanese word that literally means "to entrust"; in other words you leave your order up to the chef. This 5 course tasting menu costs an extremely reasonable 65$ per person and came highly recommended by our waitress as well as friends prior to our visit; but we were also told that it's best left for a time when you can sit at the chef's counter. Excited by the idea but not wanting anything to be lost in translation literally or figuratively speaking, we chose to stick to the regular menu and leave the omakase for our next visit when we could reserve seats at the counter.


We ordered a full sized portion of the nigiri (12 pieces - 39$) and sashimi (18 pieces - 39$) - not exactly a bargain, but quality always comes at a price. The selection of fish you receive depends on freshness and availability, which we appreciated. Chef Park employs a private importing license to bring some of his fish in from as far away as Japan, ensuring he gets the quality he demands. On this particular night our waitress let us know that the chef was working with about 20 different sorts of fish. Amongst a couple of others, the assortment of fish we were served included Sea Robbin (Houbou), "Organic" Irish Salmon, Tuna, Japanese Horse Mackerel (Aji), the fatty belly portion of Amberjack (Hamachi Toro), Seabream (Itoyoridai) & "Kaimin Tai" pink snapper that arrives at the restaurant technically still alive, shipped in a sedated state by means of acupuncture.



Upon being served, each of the fish on the two plates we shared were identified individually. This was nice, since all-too-often ordering sushi results in a heartbreaking sameness both in appearance and flavor, followed by a game of "guess the fish". We were happy to see that this wasn't the case at Park, all the work that has gone into sourcing and selecting this impressive array of fish hasn't fallen on deaf ears. On the other hand, having been told that the kitchen was working with an assortment of over 20 fish, after ordering nothing but fish, we'd be lying if we said that it wasn't discouraging to receive more than one type that had been duplicated on both our nigiri and sashimi plates.


The maki rolls that most people in Montreal equate with eating sushi are not the menu's focus at Park, presumably because while they're often tasty, they're rarely the best available medium to honor the fish. Abandon your order for kamikaze and California rolls at the door, there's a time and a place for that, and it's not here. On the night we visited there was only one maki roll available on the menu, and it was going for a pretty steep 22$.

Instead, order the Nigiri - meticulously sliced pieces of fish that are pre-seasoned and garnished, served on oblong balls of hand-formed sushi rice. Garnishes and seasonings on the night we visited ranged from simple chives to wonderfully complex and salty Japanese caper berries aged and marinated for 2 years in soy; from extravagant, briny caviar, to innovative ingredients drawing inspiration from as near as sweet Quebec maple syrup and as far as chimichurri undoubtedly influenced by chef Park's partially Argentinian heritage. Dipping your nigiri in soy is considered to be an insult to the chef, even if it is "low sodium" soy. Tradition dictates that your nigiri should presumably have been served to you in what the chef who prepared it considers to be an ideally seasoned state. We honored tradition, sampling the nigiri unadulterated. In cases like the delightful, lightly torched salmon, glazed with maple syrup and garnished with toasted sesame seeds we were wowed, but in certain other cases the nigiri were served with an overwhelming, sinus-clearing quantity of wasabi that completely overwhelmed the subtly of the fish. With such an inconsistently heavy hand on the wasabi you could have an ocean at the back door of your kitchen from which to select your fish, but when your nostrils are burning and your eyes are watering, you can expect that any nuance that fish may have had will be lost.


The presentation on the sashimi plate was absolutely breathtaking, like a work of art. Our waitress felt the need to let us know that all of the garnishes on the plate were edible; something we believe should be taken for granted considering inedible garnish is preposterous. Why would you serve your client something they couldn't eat on their plate? The fish was beautifully cut and its firm texture a testimony to its freshness and quality. It was served with a trio of dipping sauces that we felt detracted from the fish, suppressing the natural flavors rather than enhancing them. The fish was gorgeous, but all of the accompanying garnish was so painfully bland. Not a drop of dressing or flavor anywhere, would a little rice vinegar or sesame oil have been asking too much for nearly 40$ a plate? Aside from the shiso leaves, all of those sprouts and flowers were pretty, but offered no taste. A nearly pitch-dark dining room left us scouring to locate the little mound of caviar served on a black plate. Piles of insipid, shredded carrot and daikon tasted of nothing but the ice water they were pulled from to keep their texture crisp, and fanned slices of lemon and lime were technically edible, yes, but sucking on a lime is hardly our idea of fine dining. If all of that foliage and those drab vegetables were meant to be a palate cleanser, we'll stick with the pickled ginger, the little heap on the plate worked as well as it usually does for us.


A dessert of rice pudding served in a tumbler glass over a thin layer of rich chocolate ganache was topped with a refreshing medley of sweet, chopped fruit. It tasted as fantastic as it looked, but was without question the most absurdly expensive rice pudding we've ever had at 12$ a portion. At the end of the day it's rice pudding, we thought it was great but let's call a spade a spade, we'd love it a lot more for two thirds the price. Our grandmothers would chase us around the kitchen with a wooden spoon if they caught us paying 24$ for two portions of rice pudding, and you know what, maybe they should.


We left Park with very mixed emotions. The fish was lovely, but lets all calm down just a little. The fact of the matter is not all, but most Montrealers couldn't tell a fresh fish from a thawed fish if you smacked them across the face with it, so excuse us if we take your fish prowess with a grain of salt Mr or Mrs "You've never had fresher fish in your life". Sure, acupuncture fish sounds awfully fancy, but be honest with yourself, we don't doubt that the chef can, but could you really tell the difference if you hadn't been told? We enjoyed the majority of the things we ate but we also know how much it cost us. Leaving a restaurant hungry and going for a hot dog after spending roughly 130$ without a drop of alcohol is no laughing matter, and calling the service that night spotty would be generous. We would have probably been wiser to choose the tasting menu but that excuse is a cop-out, ordering from the regular menu shouldn't be a second-rate experience in any restaurant. Despite our hit-and-miss perception of the regular menu, there was nonetheless enough substance to convince us to return for the omakase. We've heard rave-reviews from people who's opinions we hold in high regard, they can't all be wrong and if they are, a lot of you tweeters, friends, bloggers and chefs have some explaining to do next time we see you.


Restaurant Park
378 Victoria Avenue
Montreal, QC
514-750-7534
www.vicpark.com

Restaurant Park on Urbanspoon

5 comments:

  1. I tried the Omakase last time I went and it ended up costing 100$ per person. And obviously the price had not been disclosed. I wanted to cry. We were served sashimi and lamb chops. Very bizarre meal and certainly not worth 100$.

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  2. the whole food network catchphrase of "everything on the plate must be edible" does not really apply to Japanese cuisine. It is pretty standard for low to high end establishments to add garnishes purely for decorative purposes... and in the case of shredded daikon and carrot, they are often used to help stack the slices of sashimi for easier access.

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    1. Hi Meek, Thanks for reading and for your reply!
      To be clear, the "everything on the plate must be edible" is a lot less Food Network based and a lot more founded in the fundamentals of cooking that are taught in your very first semester of culinary school. Although having said that, we must admit that Japanese technique is not nearly as prominent in most North American culinary schools as French technique is.

      Your comment on the purpose of the shredded daikon and carrot is an interesting perspective. Point well taken.

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  3. You guys are so damn great ! I really appreciate the tone of all your reviews, it's very honest and makes for easy reading.

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    1. Hi Laura, you're very kind. Thanks so much for reading and for your feedback. We love to hear from readers.

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