Thursday, March 18, 2004

Costly but cool

Posted on Thu, Mar 18, 2004 at 4:00 AM

I had a hard time pinning down what kind of food it is namesake chef Justin Plank turns out of the kitchen of this renamed venture in a tenured Park Avenue location, so I went to the restaurant's website and came up with this gem: "New Euro Florida cuisine with a retro flair led by Mediterranean flavors with a slight Pan-Asian influence." In other words, they're not really sure what they're cooking either.

The line sounds like description by committee, or a new stab at reviving the "fusion" label, and it does a disservice to what Park Plaza is about: reliably good, innovative dishes served with style and flair in an atmosphere that does justice to the Park Avenue address. The place has casual-yet-refined feel to it; you can hang out on the sidewalk café and watch the poseurs pass by, you can take a seat at the renovated bar, or you can sit down for a full meal and enjoy the outdoors-indoors feel of the patio/restaurant. That's not trendy, it's just cool.

We went for the full-meal treatment, kicking it off with "Chef Justin's risotto" ($9), an appetizer easily big enough for two that featured cubes of roast duck and mango. While the duck was cut too small to add much to the dish, the mango imparted a sweetness that proved an excellent complement to the texture of the risotto. Another appetizer, "The Plaza wedge" ($7), was just as ambitious, if less successful. It turned out to be a hunk of iceberg lettuce topped with Gouda cheese, a slice of prosciutto and cherry tomatoes in herbed balsamic vinaigrette. Iceberg lettuce is always a problem at this price point, and the vinaigrette was too sweet. On the other hand, I'll sing the praises of "Chef Justin's five onion soup" ($6) to the rafters; it may well be the best bowl of onion soup on the planet. This hearty, intoxicating mixture of red, green and yellow onions, shallots and chives, topped with provolone, is the antidote for anyone who thinks onion soup has to be a thin, salty broth with slivers of white onions and bread cubes floating around in it.

When the entrées came, I was a bit reluctant to dig in to mine – an herb-crusted roast pork tenderloin on a bed of root vegetables ($26) – because it looked so darn pretty arranged just so and topped with a hibiscus bud. It proved as good as it looked; the pork was as tender as quality beef with an infused smoky sweetness. The sauce also picked up sweetness and texture from the cranberries and cashews, and overall the dish was polished and satisfying.

A seafood bouillabaisse ($36) came to the table looking every bit as gorgeous, filled as it was with mussels, giant prawns, clams, fish and half a Maine lobster tail. I had high expectations, given the price, and was a bit disappointed. The lobster and prawns were grilled before being added and were a touch dry, while the clams and mussels did get a chance to stew in the juices and benefited from it. The stock was hearty and fishy, with a subtle curry flavor Chef Justin himself attributes to his use of star anise and Pernod. The trouble was that the spicing just didn't seem to make its way into the larger chunks of seafood.

Service was courteous to a fault, attentive without being annoying, in keeping with the Continental atmosphere of the restaurant. But overall the experience felt pricey. When entrees get into the $30 range, they'd better be something to burst into song about. Chef Justin's Park Plaza Gardens had me humming a tune, but not quite ready to dance on the tables.


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