At Park 75 on a recent Friday night, a single diner has left his table to visit the restroom. I watch as the floor manager hovers over the man's vacant table. The diner's napkin is whisked away, replaced by a fresh one. The manager circles the table, touching the silverware, moving a water glass ever so slightly, making sure that the table will be perfectly pleasing when the customer returns. He even takes the time to tidy up a newspaper the man was reading, straightening the pages so that they look like they came straight off the presses.
As I watched this ritual, I wondered to myself, is this attention to detail, this obsessive compulsion to have everything in its place, the thing that separates the truly fine restaurants from all the rest? Well, it certainly helps. In a world where dining is becoming a national pastime, and where food in everyday restaurants is getting better and better, truly great service is still rare. But there is no substitute for it -- not attractive waiters, nor trendy cocktails, nor hip-hop stars lounging in the bar. Great, cheap food will go a long way, and I have happily suffered abuse at the hands of surly waiters who brought me something heavenly to eat. But there's nothing like the experience of being pampered, and it is one of the few things a restaurant can do for you that you can't do for yourself.
It is a wonder to me, then, that Park 75 in the Four Seasons hotel is practically empty on a Friday night. It's true that the restaurant has none of the glamour and glitz Atlanta has come to expect from its high-end restaurants. The dining room is hushed, in appearance as well as noise level. Beige is the predominant color, along with muted pinks and greens. But there is something comforting about the old-school appearance of the room. This is fine dining as I remember it from childhood -- a little bit serious, but magical. Napkins arrive to match the color of your pants. Newspapers refold themselves when you go to the bathroom. Plates are cleared so subtly by waiters that you don't even notice.
And then there's the food. Park 75's menu runs the gamut from Continental classics to innovative new American cuisine. Chef Robert Gerstenecker has a deft hand with both; but it's when he combines the two styles, takes classics and reworks them, that his food truly delights. Take a beef tartar appetizer, which Gerstenecker dresses up with Asian flavors -- delicate ginger and soy in the beef, delicious honshi meji mushrooms as an accompaniment -- to create a graceful and beautifully balanced dish. Chefs have been dressing up tuna tartar in this manner for years, but one bite of Gerstenecker's beef version and you'll realize that the weight of red meat is a better complement to these bold Asian flavors.
Another appetizer that had me swooning was boneless quail over a generous lobe of foie gras, with pear- and vanilla-braised Vidalia onions. From the presentation to the perfectly cooked quail to that essential balance of sweetness and acid that foie gras requires, this is a masterful dish.
Meals here come in a variety of packages, from a straightforward a la carte approach to a seven-course chef's tasting menu, although our server was insistent on letting us know that the kitchen would do absolutely whatever we wanted, even if it didn't fit into the preconceived offerings on the menu. How often do you hear that in a restaurant these days?
I can't imagine how anyone could make it through the seven-course tasting menu. After one appetizer and half an entree, I felt so stuffed that it was hard to brave dessert. Entrees tend to be rich, and the portions are large. They also seem to lean more toward the old-school variation. A Dover sole dish could have come straight off a country club menu from the '70s, the rich fish dressed up in butter and capers with a side of spinach and a lemon wedge. A pork chop with a grits cake and peach chutney pleased but did not thrill.
I was sad to be so full when desserts arrived, because they were some of the best I have seen. Pastry chef David Jeffries does a beautiful job of tackling contemporary ideas, but with a base of classic training and skill that can't be faked. A poppy seed and Key lime cake was perfectly dense and moist, like a lavish muffin gone aristocratic. An apple and cashew tart had a crust so sumptuous -- part pastry, part cookie -- that leaving half of it there seemed like a sin.
And there is my one real complaint about this place. I loved almost everything about it, except the way I felt when I left. The food is so uniformly rich that it is near impossible to keep from feeling uncomfortably gorged. Perhaps a superior person to me could pace better, eat less. But the food is beautiful and delicious, and I am not that strong.
Dinner for two with wine at Park 75 is likely to set you back around $200. It seems like a lot, but I can't help but think that the extra care is worth it. Costs at restaurants everywhere are inching up, and the price gap is closing between average casual fine dining, and more opulent choices like Park 75. In other arenas -- the delightfully sure hand of the chefs, and the quiet pampering that the staff provides -- the gap is not closing. So why settle for less?
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