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Inside "Inside Park at St. Bart's"

 

click to enlarge
Terrace photo credit: Everett Bogue

It was the night the wind blew through the metropolitan area with hurricane force, felling trees and knocking out power. Under such circumstances, who could complain about having to dine indoors? But it was mid-September, still Indian summer in New York, and we had planned dinner on the terrace of Inside Park at St. Bart’s. Many were the times we’d enjoyed lunch at the popular dining spot that fronts St. Bartholomew’s. Sitting amidst potted palms beneath a colorful market umbrella, with the magnificent Byzantine-styled church as backdrop, the Waldorf Astoria just across 50th Street, and the splendid Seagram’s Building just two blocks north on 52nd, we’d sip a glass of white wine or a frosty margarita and take in the midday scene of midtown Park Avenue like a pair of Parisians looking out from a sidewalk table on the Champs Elysées.

Tonight, we anticipated a different ambiance -- dinner instead of lunch, moonlight instead of sunlight. Instead with rain-soaked umbrellas before us as bulwarks against the wind, we struggled across the stone-paved expanse, past forlorn and damp tables, up eight steps, and through a pair of huge doors.

And there we were – in the Great Hall of the landmarked Episcopalian church, a soaring 30-foot-high space, big as a ballroom. Illumination came from fat amber-colored candles on trays suspended over recessed booths and original fixtures dating back to the 1920’s hanging from the heights. Enormous yellow and white stained-glass windows lined the depth of both sides of the room; wooden beams across the ceiling were stenciled with colorful, intricate designs that repeated the Byzantine theme. The scene was grand, perhaps a bit overwhelming. But the mood was so inviting.

A pretty, petite hostess with a lovely smile welcomed us, and led us to a table at the far end of the room past tables filled with people obviously oblivious to the storm outdoors. We ordered a bottle of Rosé from Provence. The lingering raindrops on our shoulders had evaporated. This might turn out to be a good night, after all.

Before us was a stage where, on a movie-sized screen, a grainy black and white photograph of Park Avenue was projected, looking uptown from 50th Street and taken before the glass-and-steel invasion. After a while, it gave way to another image: the East River Drive on a wintery day with a single man walking past leafless trees. There followed scenes from Central Park: woodlands and meadows, the Belvedere Tower, Bethesda Terrace, the boathouse and the lake; from Greenwich Village: Minetta Lane and the arch at Washington Square; shots of the Chrysler Building, I.M. Pei’s Four Seasons Hotel on 57th Street, other New York-defining buildings, plazas, neighborhoods, each one remaining on the screen for several minutes, impressing itself on the viewer. If outside Inside Park, we had watched Park Avenue strollers, inside Inside Park we were viewing pictures of old Manhattan, new Manhattan, East Side, West Side, all around the town.

click to enlarge
Interior photo  credit:  Melissa Hom
 

“When we first opened, I spent a lot of time at the New York Historical Society looking through photos; I selected some of the ones you see here,” Matthew Weingarten, Inside Park’s executive chef, told us when he stopped by our table. He called our attention to a row of framed photographs hanging on walls alongside the booths; one was of the Schaefer Brewing Company. “These are places that used to be in this neighborhood,” he said. Interesting, we told him, a chef who is also a historian. But Matthew demurred. “I’m not so much a history buff as a story buff. I like to know the facts behind things.” Then he added, “I’m particularly interested in the stories behind our food. I want to know where things come from.”                

Executive Chef Matthew Weingarten - click to enlarge
Executive Chef Matthew Weingarten
Photo credit:  Michael Harlan  Turkell

Indeed, interest in the origins of products seems to be a hallmark of the youthful and exuberant chef who is originally from the D.C. area but grew up in England and traveled around a bit before coming to New York about 15 years ago. So is his commitment to local ingredients. “At this time of the year, there is so much available locally” he told us. “The gorgeous heirloom tomatoes, the peppers, summer squashes, young tender cucumbers. And the fragrant bunches of basil, dill and rosemary." Matthew loves to experiment with fresh herbs, combining them in different and often unexpected ways. “They enliven a dish,” he said.                         

The chef’s attitude is reflected in the freshness and quality of the products, the interesting combinations, the attractive presentations and, of course, the appeal to the palate. He serves only non-endangered fish like the wild Aleutkina Bay salmon that was on the menu that evening. Grilled and blackened on top, it came with two kinds of summer squash, and fresh, crisp micro greens and dill. Quite marvelous! As was the traditional Chesapeake Bay crabcake that was served with a greenmarket salad and chili mayonnaise. But before these entrées, we shared a superb spaghetti starter accompanied by green, yellow and red heirloom tomatoes, at the height of their season in the northeast, and flavored with basil and lemon basil, olives and balsamic vinegar. On the side was a little dish of cherrystone clams made to order for one of us who confessed to a longing for them. Matthew had added little bits of artichokes, fennel and slivered onions, dill, parsley cilantro and roasted them in his wood-burning oven.

“That’s the old way,” he said of his latest appliance which stands outdoors. “But people are getting used to it. I love it for pizzas, for roasting meats and fish.”

And we loved this dinner down to the desserts of multi-flavored ice creams and an absolutely fabulous pastry filled with rhubarb. We lingered over coffee making certain we had taken in the entire photography presentation before getting up to go.

“Don’t forget your umbrella,” said the hostess, as we opened the massive doors. We thanked her and stepped outdoors. But happily, it was no longer needed.

Inside Park at St. Bart’s
325 Park Avenue at 50th
New York, NY
10022-6912

Phone:  212-593-3333
Web: 
http://www.insideparknyc.com

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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