A surprisingly quiet dinner at the Park Cafe last weekend coincided with the arrival of our Time magazine, heralding, among other things, "a return to the basics." Americans now "tired of trendiness" are rediscovering the pleasures of the "simple life," according to Time's editorialists and writers.
I have always thought of the Park Cafe as a trendsetter among Salt Lake eateries. The conversion from Kay and Red's Cafe - where coffee, smoke and blue-collar banter were the order of the day - to an upscale, polished restaurant has attracted throngs of customers over the years, many of whom might be called "yuppies." While the food can be uneven, its ambience is lively and cuisine just lively enough."The Park," as regulars call it, continues to attract a much wider spectrum of clientele than just so-called "yuppies." They brave its somewhat cramped dining area as well as the sound of traffic for the al fresco dining on the patio that faces Liberty Park to sample a creative and eclectic menu. As is the case with other diner upgrades - Ruth's, the Dodo (really a soda fountain conversion), to name two - the Park Cafe is an improvement, even an innovation, on the local restaurant scene.
Yet setting trends can be tiring. And the food we sampled last weekend reflected a bit of that fatigue.
But I wouldn't want a return to Kay and Red's, let alone, as Time suggests, "macaroni and cheese . . . iceberg lettuce . . . meatloaf" for my dining out fare. I still want to indulge in, if even for a couple of hours, the illusion of prosperity, besides good fare.
I don't want the Park Cafe to serve fried chicken; I want the kitchen to attend to its own basics, such as seasonings in the black bean soup, flavor for the rice that came with our entrees, and sauces that were pale and lifeless. These were especially drab when compared to the vibrant colors on the paintings on the wall.
The remoulade sauce that came with the overly steamed salmon ($13.95) was no better than bottled tartar sauce. Except for a few capers, it was lacking most of the classic ingredients - gherkins, chervil, mustard, tarragon, scallions, let alone anchovy paste. The dollops of burgundy butter that melted atop the bland beef tenderloins ($14.50) were noteworthy because of the pink tinge from the Bermuda onion chunks, not for any distinctive flavor.
An onion marmalade, chopped onions in a light reduction sauce smothering the leg of lamb ($12.95), was considerably better. Unfortunately the untrimmed lamb was overdone to our liking.
The squash and onion sautee and the vinaigrette with crumbles of blue cheese on the house salad were notable exceptions to the disappointing entrees. And while we liked the Park's cream cheese spread with the bread, our waitress had to explain that their usual crusty French bread was unavailable. That would have been like Kay and Red's running out of ketchup.
Among the menu specialties are cajun shrimp and crostini appetizers, smoked chicken salad with kiwi, crab raviolis, mesquite broiled pork chop, stir fry and spinach fettucine with smoked salmon alfredo. Entree prices range from $6.95 for the chicken pot pie to $14.50 for the tenderloins. Nightly specials also add to the selections.
Rather than resurrect the notion of "casualization" for today's simpler tastes (as some forecasters predict), the Park Cafe should consider returning to its innovative beginnings.
Rating: * * 1/2
The Park Cafe, 604 E. 1300 South, 487-1670. Open for breakfast from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m.; lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; and dinner from 5 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; until 10 p.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Accepts major credit cards and check with guarantee card. Reservations recommended on weekends.