You could go years without realizing that the Park Avenue Pub even exists. Until it was recommended to me last year, even I'd been unaware, and I did my laundry next door for years.
But Ted Bunce has been running the place since July of 1973. Ted's wife, Lisa, says it's the kind of place where people call to cancel 20-year, standing reservations when they can't come on a Friday night. Inside the dining room, you're surrounded by warm wood, and though the linen-topped tables are close together, it's intimate rather than crowded, and not loud. It's a refreshingly un-hip scene.
The Park Avenue Pub puts itself under extreme scrutiny because of its prices. Many entrées cost over $20, which compares to 2Vine, Joey B's, and the Victor Grilling Company. If some of this sounds unusually critical, that's why.
There is a different risotto every day, and lobster risotto with red pepper sauce was wonderful ($9.95). It's a trick to get risotto to come out just right: creamy, with a hint of the individual grains, but not crunchy. This was perfect, and the silky lobster was right in tune. Crab cakes with sambal lime aioli were also delicious ($10.95). The real crab was sweet, and the sauce was delicate, despite its convoluted name.
Mixed green salad was neither a dull iceberg fest nor the now-standard field mix ($4.95). Radicchio, spinach, and romaine were the stars, with a light vinaigrette. Smoked shrimp, arugula, and roasted potatoes with dill vinaigrette ($5.95) was an oddity: not quite a culinary train wreck, but the shrimp-potato pairing wasn't quite right.
When my wife asked about the vegetarian special, the waitress quickly described it, then recommended veal or lamb instead. This demonstrated a certain lack of focus. When asked to slowly repeat the specials, she did so at the same warp speed they'd been delivered the first time. We actually felt we were annoying her, but eventually found her (unintentionally) amusing. The waiter on my second trip, new to the restaurant, was much better, though: calm, attentive, and friendly without fawning.
Bullied out of a vegetarian entrée, Anne had roasted pesto-stuffed pork tenderloin ($15.95). It was slightly rare for her taste, but she was wrong; it was lovely that way, moist, sweet, and tender. The dry-aged Black Angus Kansas City steak was practically uncooked, just the way I like it. Dry-aged, USDA Prime beef is a rarity here, and this steak could have been eaten without teeth.
My dinner companion, Michael Warren Thomas, had his typically cranky reaction to the lack of New York State wine. Throw the man a bone, folks, a Dr. Frank or something. We understand that the wine-purchasing public has biases, but New York has some high-quality wines that deserve attention. Still, the Pub's wine list is extensive, and Lisa Bunce claims they charge much less for comparable vintages than many other local spots.
Michael and I did try that veggie offering, scallion pancakes with three sauces ($14.95). The pancakes were quite good, though not like the spectacular Korean pancakes at the Seoul Garden. Horseradish sour cream went nicely, but neither soy dip nor orange marmalade did much for us. Michael's crankiness had him very down on the bread, a yeasty round that tasted reheated.
Sous chef Katie O'Reilly's ice creams were wonderful (vanilla and Bailey's pistachio). Unfortunately for the vanilla and a wonderful fudge sauce, they came with a sorry little frozen éclair. I passed on the Paul de Lima coffee and continue to wonder why more restaurants don't sell high-end coffee.
The Park Avenue Pub does a nice job of not copping to faddish food trends while still having an interesting menu. I didn't love that smoked shrimp salad, but did appreciate the effort, interesting but not insane. If trendy Park Avenue annoys you, it's easy to forget it inside the Pub. It's much closer to the solid feel of Rooney's than to the totally '90s cool of Tonic. Longevity in the restaurant business is incredibly difficult to achieve, and there are usually good reasons when a spot does last.
Park Avenue Pub, 650 Park Avenue, 461-4140. Hours: Mon, 5:30-10 p.m.; Tues-Sat, 5:30-11 p.m.
'Tis the season for garlic! Victor Grilling Company is featuring garlic dishes through August 3, and roasted garlic with goat cheese will probably stay on the menu. The free Garlic Festival at Fox Run Vineyards is August 3 & 4, with their 10th annual Garlic Dinner on Saturday. Tickets are $110 for one of the year's premier dinner events, with Tony Gullace from Max doing the tasting menu. Finally, the Western New York Garlic Festival is in Batavia on August 10.
Michael Warren Thomas can be heard on WYSL 1040. Tune in on Saturdays for gardening, restaurants, and travel from 9 to noon, and on Sundays for antiques and wine from 10 a.m. to noon. Listen live on the web at www.SavorLife.com.