The Gadabout—April 11, 2008

Last week was Thai food; a burger from the Med the week before. Hyde Park may be Chicago’s intellectual Mecca, but it’s also the city’s culinary wasteland. The last major change in the neighborhood food scene was when Noodles Etc. closed one restaurant to open another. The nicest place to go was Le Petite Folie, where the French cuisine pairs wine with tenured professors, but not with twentysomething college students. Hyde Park has never really known something new or something hip in recent memory—at least, until Park 52.

Sprung forth from the mind of restauranteur Jerry Kleiner like an arthritic Athena, Park 52 finally took residence at East 52nd Street and South Harper Avenue on Tuesday after eight long months of real-time rumors, Internet gossip, and Tribune interviews. From the algae-colored brick exterior inward, the place promenades with a finesse rarely seen south of the Loop. Hardwood floors and thick velvet drapes with “HP”–emblazoned accents nicely balance the multicolored dice-inspired chairs, patterned walls, and large orange light fixtures. Park 52’s sleek, enormous bar and the beautiful cocktails it churns out will no doubt become the haunt of heady Hyde Park boozebags.

As with any decent “American bistro,” Park 52 features myriad meat entrées. Chicken or fish eaters fall to the wayside as pansies or heart-disease sufferers in the menu’s showcase of red-meat carnivore delights. The beef family makes a gratuitous appearance between the New York strip, a duet of filet and stroganoff, burgers, and barbecue short ribs; the chicken and fish are relegated primarily to roasting. Judging from a medium-rare flat iron steak ($18), the kitchen seems to have perfected the art of grilling tender, succulent meat. The “hand-cut” curly fries served with the steak are delightfully crisp and entirely free of any mystery seasonings. In a parent-sponsored meal, the $36 bone-in rib eye with massive “fat-tire” onion rings on the side seems worthy, even if it’s not entirely clear to what (or to whom) the “fat-tire” refers.

Park 52 offers exactly one pasta dish: a wild mushroom and asparagus fettuccine ($16). Grilled cherry tomatoes, a truffle oil sauce, and wide slivers of parmesan dress the pasta up to gratifying levels. The final product is a palatable, blameless nod towards vegetarians that goes appreciably beyond the restaurant’s pear and endive ($8) or baby spinach ($7) salads.

The reward for waiting so long for Park 52’s opening, though, arrives in the form of desserts. The varied selection of accompaniments is a highlight strong enough to outshine the high price of the dessert menu ($8 for any given dessert). The requisite brownie plate, for instance, is paired with a creamy hazelnut concoction and topped with delicate slices of kumquat. A seasonal nectarine crisp arrives bubbling in a miniature cast-iron pot, and both that and the blueberry shortbread come with fresh, perfectly complementary vanilla bean ice cream.

Park 52 fills a niche the University community certainly needed. It is an upscale, trendy restaurant for a special-occasion budget that promises both a great meal and a great time without CTA or parking concerns (there’s even a valet). Between it and Treasure Island, “America’s most European supermarket,” is Hyde Park on the border between desert and West Loop–like oasis?