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.
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.
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.
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.
378 Victoria Avenue