In many ways, New York's Inside Park restaurant could not have found a worse time to open. Located in a prime spot on Park Avenue, its first week was overshadowed by the excitement of the United Nations' General Assembly meeting. Moreover, the extensive security surrounding the delegates, many of whom were staying across the street at the Waldorf-Astoria, made it next to impossible for interested patrons to find their way to the restaurant's door. Over the following months, further events, ranging from the Jewish holidays to the downfall of the economy, conspired to tank the fledgling restaurant. Still, Inside Park soldiered on, determined to succeed in a falling market and a newly-restrained city, where a night on the town had started to seem like a luxury, instead of a birthright.
Luckily, Inside Park has a lot going for it. Located in the former community center of New York's St. Bartholomew's Church, the restaurant has undergone a multi-million dollar restoration that tranformed the old, battle-scarred institutional space into an elegant yet intimate venue. From the rafters painted in folk art-inspired designs to the the whitewashed walls that look like they belong in a monastery, to the dramatic stage that dominates the dining room, the restaurant exudes a kind of grandeur that seems a product of the twentieth, not the 21st century. The addition of a crisp, friendly-yet-efficient wait staff and a thoughtfully-prepared and innovative menu complete the picture.
Still, for all the ambiance of its space and skill of its staff, Inside Park has fought an uphill battle to find customers, particularly with a falling economy dictating that many New Yorkers are more inclined to eat in than go out. Over the past few months, the high prices and expensive delicacies that have so long fueled New York's fine dining scene have not been an easy sell. With that in mind, the restaurant has organized a series of "Heritage Cuisine Dinners." Priced at $35 per person, the three course dinners each focus on a distinctive regional food, offering a perfectly prepared meal at a price that is slightly less than that of a standard entree. Although the dinners, including cassoulet, paella, and bouillabase, have humble origins, Chef Matthew Weingarten's emphasis on local ingredients and thoughtful, respectful preparation elevates them to the level of fine dining.
On the night that I visited, the menu featured charcroute garni, an Alsatian dish that Chef Weingarten used as an entry point into the complexities of Eastern European cuisine. From the marinated cheese appetizer to the pork-and-sauerkraut main course, to the simple German chocolate cake that finished the meal, the dinner was a lesson in how simple flavors and basic seasonings could approach transcendence. While I had my small complaints -- for example, the potatoes served with the entree seemed like an afterthought -- I was generally impressed by the care, pride, and thought that clearly went into every dish.
While my wife and I don't really have the wherewithal to eat out with any regularity, Inside Park's heritage program definitely brings its fantastic cuisine into our range. For that matter, having had the charcroute, I can't wait to see what Weingarten does with osso bucco!
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