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By Edwin Goei
It used to be kind of a rule: Whenever you reviewed Park Avenue, you needed to talk about the seedy-looking motel across the street. And all the other motor lodges, trailer parks and liquor stores, bristling with metal bars, that you passed on your way to the restaurant. Then you were required to sum it up by asserting the incongruity of its existence among all this blight. Above all, you had to use the word “Stanton” in your punch line—maybe even only the word “Stanton.” The exclamation point was optional.
But in the half-decade since Park Avenue opened, Stanton stopped being such an easy target. Foodwise, it has seen a sort of mini-renaissance. Among other developments, a Freshia Market opened in town; and a few years ago the city became a safe haven and the new home of Thai Nakorn while the original in Garden Grove was rebuilt from a devastating fire. And then, there was Park Avenue itself.
When it opened in 2005, this New American restaurant by respected Beverly Hills chef and restaurateur David Slay made the city not only relevant, but a bona fide destination. Even LA Times critic S. Irene Virbila—who rarely ventures south—came to eat there last year.
But by the time Virbila got around to it, the novelty of the place had already worn off on me. The Googie architecture, the swank Rat Pack-inspired interior, the homemade ketchup and the on-site garden were still wowing everyone else it seemed. But the food I had there about two years ago just flopped. Not even my go-to dish—the five-spice covered baked salmon—tasted like it did the first few times I had it during the restaurant’s infancy. The brown rice base under the fish was a chore to eat; and the salmon itself seemed dull despite being lacquered in a mahogany covering of spices.
Then Gustavo Arellano raved about it to me recently. But when he went again, his second verdict was less than glowing. This was starting to sound like a sine wave. Which side of the sinusoid would I end up on? (Why, yes, I am an engineer. Why do you ask?)
Their starter breads were different from what I remembered. Instead of the square slice from a sandwich loaf and the cheese-crisp shingle they served back in 2005, today’s Park Avenue seems to favor more rustic loaves and savory crispy planks of toast sliced from a French baguette covered with black pepper and herbs. I used both to scoop up their apricot-butter-like onion dip—even though it was really only a couple of teaspoons of sugar shy of cake frosting.
For the next dish, we were warned that the lobster macaroni and cheese “had a kick to it”—and it did. The cheese sauce nestled into those pasta-shell dimples carried a subversive spiciness that built up the more we ate it. Its ultimate success owed less to the so-fresh-they-wriggled pieces of lobster, than to the crispy, seasoned breadcrumbs: That textural contrast elevated the entire dish.
A “fresh clipped” salad of beet leaves, red oak, arugula and mizuna that we tried just might be the only dish in OC that lives up to the title “garden salad:” It actually came from Slay’s garden out back. Perhaps it was the power of suggestion, but it really did taste fresher and snappier than the usual pile o’ greenery.
It was an appropriate lead-in to the antelope steak, which had a grassy note and an ultra-lean cleanliness on the palate. (Think of the red meat as beef with a personal trainer.) The thin slabs were laid primly atop a slightly gummy risotto and surrounded by a red wine demiglace.
The antelope was part of their seasonal menu, along with calves’ liver and Jidori chicken. The latter—a homey poultry-and-mashed-potato dish—was almost as good as Memphis’ fried hen, which I hold as a benchmark. Park Avenue does it without a trace of breading, instead choosing to caramelize the moist breast by sauté. Its pan leavings later become the brown gravy in which cubed roasted carrots are simmered to end up in the sauce moat.
But what of the baked salmon dish? It still disappointed. The five-spice rub seemed to be formulated the same way, but I remembered it being livelier and more thrilling than in the dish I tasted this time. And the brown rice was still an annoying distraction.
As we strolled through Park Avenue’s newly landscaped grounds after dinner, I wondered whether it was I who had changed, and not the salmon. After all, it’s one dish that’s hung around on Slay’s menu all these years. Obviously, people are still ordering it. And despite what I thought of the dish, the restaurant is doing quite swimmingly. And thank goodness for Stanton that it is.
Park Avenue, 11200 Beach Blvd., Stanton, (714) 901-4400; www.parkavedining.com. Open Tues.–Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat., 4-10 p.m.; Sun, 4-9 p.m. Starters, $5-$12; entrées, $17-$30. Full bar.
This review appeared in print as "A Walk in the Park: Despite some recent inconsistency, Park Avenue’s New American fare keeps Stanton on the culinary map."