With five dining areas on four floors of a beautifully restored 19th-century brick building, this Union City charmer offers options ranging from upscale, globally influenced, New American fare to a hip bar with a late-night menu to Sunday brunch. It’s astonishing that executive chef Todd Villani manages to pull off with equal aplomb empanadas, Asian calamari salad, gazpacho, Middle Eastern mezze, fusilli Bolognese, crab cakes and T-bone steaks.
After opening the restaurant in 2007, owner Karl Halligan hired Villani in 2009 to improve the food, Halligan told me after my visits. Villani, 40, who grew up in Rutherford and Wayne, has accomplished that. He has cooked in restaurants from Miami to Montclair, notably with the Townhouse Restaurant Group in New York, where he worked under chef Marcus Samuelsson.
Unfortunately, Park Avenue’s focus seems to be booking the private parties that fill most of those five dining areas. My foursome was not greeted either time; on our second visit, a Friday, we were told, “Just head upstairs.” When we got there, the dining room was beautiful, with arched windows, chandeliers and walnut paneling. But every table was empty and no staff were present. As we trooped back down, a server descended from the third floor and suggested we go back because someone was indeed covering the floor. That server eventually materialized from the outdoor deck behind the dining room, where people were being seated that night. Who knew?
On our first visit, a Saturday, the valet parking promised on the website was a no-show. We were eventually led to the second floor and seated right next to a raucous celebration of about 20 people, even though every other table was empty. Our server told us that while he didn’t mean to rush us, we might consider placing our order pronto because he had a big party arriving soon for a private affair on the roof and he was the only one on duty.
Amazingly, despite all that, courses were brought in a timely manner and set down in unison before the right person. The menu of 16 starters (many large enough to share), 12 entrées and seven desserts was loaded with winners. Excellent tuna tartare on avocado purée, with watercress salad and julienned Granny Smith apples in a miso ginger vinaigrette, delivered a lot of pleasure for $13. Asian calamari salad with baby arugula, red cabbage, hearts of palm, summer squash, toasted almonds and grilled pineapple in a spicy sesame-orange dressing was wittily presented, spilling cornucopia-like from a paper takeout box turned on its side. Somehow the riot of flavors, colors and textures hit the spot. Bland Caesar salad and a market salad ballasted with dryish pucks of goat cheese were not so compelling.
On the other hand, a smoked Berkshire pork loin had it all. Given a nice char and served with egg-noodle mac ’n‘ cheese, braised red cabbage, bacon and a dollop of apricot mostarda, it was smoky, tangy, spicy, sweet, salty, crunchy and creamy. Equally good (and astonishing at just $25) was a tender, beefy, 16-ounce T-bone with chimichurri-whipped potatoes and a watercress salad.
A fine roasted salmon filet crusted with sesame seeds and lemony Middle Eastern ground sumac and served with crisp snap peas and carrots was lighter, yet still rich and satisfying. One of the few misses—unaccountably bland house-made papardelle with sweet sausage, Swiss chard and garbanzos—was put to shame by a special of fusilli Bolognese.
Desserts were worth indulging in, from roasted pineapple with house-made gelato, pistachios and vanilla sauce to pitch-perfect crème brûlée and Villani’s family-recipe tiramisu.
So let’s see. Excellent food? Check. Attractive dining room? Check. Reasonable prices? Check. Warm welcome? Any welcome? Well-organized staff? Valet parking as promised? Kind of tails off there. Still, my guests said that, all things considered, they wouldn’t rule out going back on their own. Nor would I.
EDITOR’S NOTE: After this review went to press, in June 2013, Todd Villani left Park Avenue Bar & Grill.