On the ingredient lists that now pass for menus, it can be hard to discern exactly how a dish is assembled: Squid, rutabagas and chocolate sauce sounds so daring when the nouns are lined up neatly as cornstalks, but the wow factor fizzles when the plate arrives with the fish and veg chastely separated by a scrawl of mole.
So it's best not to rush to the conclusion, as I imprudently did, that Park's appetizer of shrimp, avocado, horseradish, tomato sauce and saltines constitutes a shrimp cocktail. When I used the shorthand to place my order, the diligent bartender (who takes such a sporting attitude toward his squeezing and shaking that he sometimes works in a technical fleece jacket) looked a bit hurt.
1921 Henderson Avenue, (214-824-3343, www.parkhenderson.com, 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m.,Tuesday-Wednesday, 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Saturday. $$$
Burrata flatbread $14 Duck leg $19 Gulf crab toast $10 Pan seared grouper $22 Ricotta donuts $7 Jalapeno mac $12 Leg of lamb $19 Fried broccoli $9 Rib-eye $24 Shrimp cocktail $11 Sunflower salad $7 Pork ribs $23 Lemon chicken $17
"The deconstructed shrimp cocktail, you mean?" he asked, loading all his emphasis on the gourmet adjective.
Forgive me. An order of chilled Panama white shrimp, please.
To be fair, Park's shrimp starter doesn't feature shrimp hanging off the rim of a glass goblet cushioned with cocktail sauce. The plate's landscaped with a phalanx of shoddily deveined shrimp, more impressive for their size than their flavor: If you sent a bully to the fishmonger, he'd probably return with shrimp like these. There's a dollop of salty mashed avocado atop the shrimp and a pool of crushed tomatoes tinged with vodka beneath them. Saltines are served on the side.
With its convenience store crackers and liquored-up cocktail sauce, the appetizer's beachy in the best ways. While I wish someone in the kitchen had heeded the shrimp before they blew past the tender mark, I can imagine many worse ways to spend a warm spring evening than sitting on Park's patio, drinking an unoaked Oregon chardonnay and eating—I know, I know—shrimp, avocado, horseradish, tomato sauce and saltines.
There are many simple pleasures to be savored at Park, the 2-year-old Henderson Avenue restaurant at which executive chef Garreth Dickey recently took the reins from Marc Cassel, a fellow veteran of The Green Room in its first, successful iteration. But Park isn't satisfied with simple: Shrimp cocktail can't just be shrimp cocktail, and most dishes here aren't considered finished until they've been gussied up with needless Mediterranean finery or inexplicable Southern ornament.
It's a shame the restaurant's ambitions outpace its execution because the space remains one of the loveliest on the Henderson strip. The mid-century modern interior is woodsy and warm, but when the weather's fair, customers clump on the Palm Springsy patio as though the restaurant just lilted to the left. Smart landscaping protects the tables from street traffic, but the stylish yard feels breezy and spacious.
Cocktails are popular with patio sitters, and Park offers eight concoctions of its own. A surprising number of them feature forced intermarriages between liquor and wine. There's no sin in mingling spirits, of course, but the results here are frequently brooding and imbalanced: Red wine and whiskey, which often meet in punch bowls, need more than lemon juice and agave sweetener to coax them into coherence. Better perhaps to stick with wine. For by-the-glass drinkers weary of sending back wines poured from bottles opened countless days prior, the menu lists a red and white on tap, although the latter wasn't available the first night I visited.
If wine's the drink of choice out back, whole wheat flatbreads should be the official patio snack. Park typically offers three styles, although the restaurant's menu is subject to ongoing revision. The surfboard-shaped pizza has a crackly, crispy crust that's an ideal textural counterfoil to a squishy layer of garlicky pesto, lanky mushrooms and plenty of melted fresh mozzarella cheese. The flatbread's warm and light and easy to share and marred only by an off-message dusting of nutmeg.
Melted cheese is usually a reliable way to begin a meal, which might be why our server enthusiastically endorsed an appetizer of mac and cheese. The goopy smoked cheddar that enveloped a skillet's worth of pasta jumbled with prosciutto bits should have been a mindless pleasure, but the dish was a bore: The noodles were overcooked, and there was no trace of the jalapeños listed on the menu.
Mac and cheese is one of a few explicit Southern homages on the menu, which no longer includes Cassel's briefly trendy chicken-fried flat-iron steak. There are biscuits and greens and branches of fried broccoli, served with a familiar-tasting blend of soy sauce and sriracha. Park's website maintains the restaurant "uses only fresh ingredients," but, freed from the clutches of oily over-fry, the broccoli had the bendy veneer of a thawed vegetable.
Far better in the starting greens department was a salad of undeniably fresh sprouts, toasted sunflower seeds and wedges of grilled pineapple coated in an assertive fennel dressing. The salad's a gorgeous example of the patio cuisine at which Park excels when the kitchen hasn't lost itself in a lemon juice frenzy.
Toasts topped with lily-white picked crab meat and vernal sprigs of microgreens should have worked, but the dish was spoiled by a wince-worthy amount of lemon juice. The same problem reoccurred on an entrée of lemon chicken, spritzed with enough sour juice to make its name an understatement. The roasted half chicken, served with a tangle of buttery spinach, was otherwise fairly decent: While the skin wasn't perfectly crisped, the garlic slid beneath it made an eloquent argument for the classic practice. Poultry might very well be Park's forte: On another night, all four diners at my table agreed a dish of crispy duck legs, served over a pudding of grits, deserved the title of evening's standout.
Other entrées were inconsistent. Sparkly grilled pork ribs glazed with sriracha sauce were tender, but an accompaniment of wintry holdover shredded carrots, cabbage and gluey mashed potatoes didn't do much for the peppery dish. I liked the fried sheets of Brussels sprout leaves that appeared with a North Carolina black grouper—a Dallas restaurant rarity since removed from the menu—but the fish was badly overcooked.
And then there's beef. The rib-eye I tried was tough at medium-rare and assisted little by a splotchy béarnaise, but its undoing was a strong licorice flavor, suggestive of a deglazing with Pernod. The brutish odor overwhelmed the steak.
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There was nothing wrong with braised lamb, but the long-cooked, plainly seasoned meat tasted like something that should have been served in a British pub and downed with a glass of stout. It probably would have paired well with the schizoid potatoes—neither chip nor fry, but trapped somewhere in the middle—that came with the rib-eye. Instead, the kitchen graced the plate with fresh tomatoes and crumbled feta cheese.
Desserts didn't thrill. An overly sweet tarte tatin seemed to have been crafted from maraschino cherries, and ricotta donuts exemplified Park's bad habit of not letting a dish alone. The rice pudding used as a filling might have been plated with fruit for a perfectly fine last course. Instead, it was fried into massive balls and doused with a sauce sounding strong ginger and pear notes.
"It's cranberry," our server assured us.
Deconstructed, cranberry, whatever. Call it what you'd like. Semantics unfortunately don't matter much when a dish is overwrought. Park may just need to follow the lead of the laid-back guests on its patio and thoroughly relax.