Hotel dinning can be the ultimate example of the slippery slope. On the one hand, many of the best chefs end up running those kitchens, so you get top notch talent. On the other hand, the chef’s id and ego are often held in check by the the massive corporation holding the checkbook to their livelihood. At Park 75, the centerpiece of the Four Seasons in Atlanta, executive chef Robert Gerstenecker seems to have enough freedom and a high enough acumen to keep his puppet masters at bay while maintaining enough of himself in his art.
Gerstenecker, who recently made an appearance on ITCK, has been at the helm of Park 75 for a handful of years. It seems he has found home. At a restaurant known for it’s tea service and brunches, Gerstenecker has brought out progressive American cuisine with a foundation in contemporary Southern cooking.
So it was with this mindset in hand that I set out one lovely afternoon for lunch with a favorite family friend. Having not ventured into this particular dinning space in some 24-months, I made it a point to meditate on my present and hand my brain a blank canvas to paint on. Needless to say, it didn’t stay blank very long.
The restaurant itself is nestled in a second floor room just above the hotel lobby. Being that there is a good bit of space to play with, they also maintain an adjunct “indoor” patio. Being neither the beauty nor the brains of this particular duet, I happily obliged at the suggestion to take a seat in the massive hall. Though you may find this detracts from the intimacy that the understated dining room offers, I love the people watching afforded us, especially during lunch in such an elegant environment. If Pam, Oscar, and Toby could have ponied up the bucks … I feel like Park 75 would have gladly hosted a “Finer Things” event (check: The Office reference).
Immediately, the staff began their dance. As it is with many a restaurants located in $350/night hotels, there’s a meticulous nature to the service at Park 75. Many would call it pretentious; however, a keener eye will identify it as an offering of elegance. In the case of Il Mulino, I’d say the arrogance is profound. At Park 75, there are just too many smiling faces to ignore. And besides, how pretentious can you get if you have a chef’s table in the kitchen? Now granted, a good bit of the jovialness was due to the familiarity my wonderful date had with the staff; but, a smile doesn’t come from a grouch … regardless of who they are talking to. Whether it was the main server, the manager, or simply a runner, every person we came into contact with was at worst pleasant and at best smiling more than Cheshire.
Friendliness will get you so far … doing your job will take it home. Our server, whose name eludes me, had a true understanding of the menu, explained it elegantly, and avoided snob terms that might blow over the heads of people just looking for a fine meal without excessive puffery. It also helped that she knew the daily specials without hesitation.
After the usual introduction stuff, the server walked away with our drink orders in her back pocket. This was the warm up lap for some great conversation, and the setting helped make it all the more comfortable. Within moments, we were chatting like giddy little school girls only to be interrupted shortly thereafter with my iced tea and her water. Being the tea whore that I am (it’s quite obnoxious how much I consume), I was tickled like Elmo at the giant glass of cubes in front of me. The ice cubes you see … are made with tea. While I sucked that site in, a batch of the freshly brewed leafy crack was presented and poured over my tea cubes … um … AWESOME!
The conversation began to tumble over itself into familiar topics of years too long ago, and meanwhile, I started to run through the lunch samplings. A few soups, a trio of salads (with some wiggle room given the protein list), a small selection of sandwiches, and of course … some more robust options for the glutton in me. Much of it caught my eye … a roasted turkey was almost it … but Benton’s bacon is just so played out. Thankfully, there was a steak wrap sporting a chimichurri marinade and garlic aïoli to distract me. That was until I moved onto the signature section … where a
non-existent diet busting service of mac & cheese called to me and said: “Please Buddha … give me your $20, I’ll only make you a little fatter.” Check and mate!
Meanwhile, my dear friend, much more conscious of the fact that stuffing pure creamy goodness down your throat might not be the best thing for that little pump we all carry around, elected for the Asian salad with seared Ahi tuna on top. Grovel … now I feel guilty!
After the order, our conversation picked up again, only to be interrupted by a few bites of corn muffins off the bread plate. Crumbly and spongy, they were infused with a handful of goodies that gave them a fruit forward flavor.
Inside of 10-minutes, the two of us found ourselves prepped and ready for grubbing. As she gracefully enjoyed her salad, I tore into my mac and cheese like I was Ralph’s little brother playing Piggy (Christmas Story anyone?). What made this mac so appealing on site was the white cheese base, the diced tomatoes, the pesto crumbs, and the bay shrimp that fought with the lump crab for supremacy of the dish and the title of Top Crustacean. Here, the crescendo of the meal didn’t actually explode.
This was a well-executed, competently assembled and created dish. Not too complicated, not to simple … but with everything you need for a bite that will reward you for your indiscretion (the damage it will do to your health). The shrimp was fresh, the lump crab soft and plump, and the right mix of cheese against a perfectly al dente noodle. Yet something was missing. The dish just didn’t have the pronounced impact it rightfully deserved.
Still, these things aren’t to be trifled with … and I downed it in its entirety … pleased to have played, yet wanting just a bit more. For a somewhat reserved portion size (not a bad thing on its own) and a pretty hefty price tag – I wanted to be blown away. This instead, drifted into the back end of my mind as our conversation endured.
Somewhere in the mix, the Tuna salad (Mixed Greens, Napa Cabbage, Asian Pears, Edamame, Sesame Seeds, Crispy Shallots, Toasted Peanuts, Carrot-Ginger Vinaigrette) disappeared. But I didn’t get a fork in, so that’s all I can say about that.
There’s nothing to be ashamed about in the food we had, but for the near $50 price tag for a couple of kid friendly beverages, a salad, and some mac … I just expected more. I wanted this meal to be GREAT, yet I found my lunchtime visit simply pleasant. The whole of the experience greatly made up for any of the minor disappointments I had with this single shot to get my hands (and face) dirty.
Even further, underneath it all, this was a very stripped down experience. So the food didn’t move me to the depths I feel it could have, but it was well-executed and showed that RG knows what he’s doing. There’s enough there that I truly want to explore the menu and a visit for dinner is definitely in order. It will be interesting to see how the lunch experience morphs if you move inside at a time when the buttoned up folks arrive. As it stands, Park 75 could be better, but it could have also been a whole lot worse. Dishes like New York State Duck (w. Sweet Potato Puree, Huckleberries, Grilled Asparagus) serve as a reminder that further examination is in order, even if my money clip turns into a paper clip as a result.
Alright y’all … who’s buying? 🙂
Atlanta Foodies on Park 75
- Atlanta Restaurant Blog on Park 75 (02.25.10)
- The Quick + Dirty Dirty on Park 75 (01.24.10)
- Chow Down Atlanta on Park 75 tea service (02.09.08)