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Park Tavern: Casual Dining for the Wealthy 

Wednesday, Oct 26 2011
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There's something audacious, and admirable, about installing a mosaic logo in the entrance to your restaurant with the inscription "est. 2011." The year is printed on the menu, too. And while Park Tavern is entering into the second month of the restaurant hype cycle, the "2011" warns foodistas flitting by that Anna Weinberg and Jennifer Puccio aim to be there long enough for the date to matter.

Marlowe, the pair's first restaurant together near AT&T Park, is a modest proposition, mostly famous for its burger. But it has become a preserve for couture-wearing San Franciscans who appear in the society-photo sections of the city magazines, making Weinberg the perfect restaurateur to take over the Washington Square space that long-timers still think of as Moose's.

Moose's had a reputation for being a hangout for power brokers and the financially blessed, and Park Tavern has been designed to play the same role. The broad restaurant, its expanses tamed with handsome blacks and grays, is divided into three areas with three distinct sub-populations. To the right of the entryway is the bar area, all glowing bottles and touching shoulders, with a long communal table occupied by professional-class drinkers in their 20s. The low-ceilinged, quieter front room with the view of Washington Square Park is the province of suit jackets, bulky silver jewelry, and overly lifted eyebrows. The rest of us get seated in the high-ceilinged main room, its white octagonal tiles, studded leather banquettes, and marble-topped tables a rich man's idea of casual dining. Willie Brown has given the place his imprimatur.

Weinberg and Puccio have found their core audience.

Park Tavern still has its green spots, but it is already a successful restaurant, a place that understands who's dining there and gives them what they want: stiff cocktails, strong food, and a few winks — pork belly bites, "boozy floats" for dessert — to remind them to enjoy themselves.

Casey Doolin's bar team is solid when it comes to Hemingway daiquiris, tinged with the witchy spiced fruit of Maraschino, and textbook Sazeracs (both $10), but he's capable of finessing odd combinations like the McKinley ($12), which lightens up Old Potrero Whiskey with Anchor Steam and scents the drink with just enough rosemary and douglas fir eau-de-vie to allude to mountain passes, not Pine Sol.

The cocktail glasses are meant to be orbited by bar snacks, designed in the Spanish tradition of tapas rather than the shrunken entrées that Americans call by that name. Lightly smoked, deviled eggs ($1.50 a piece) filled with smoked egg yolks whipped with mayonnaise, crisp bacon and a pinprick-sharp salsa verde dabbed on top. Get at least one per person, then order a second round. Tack on a bowl of Marlowe's famous brussels sprout chips ($6), gnarled and papery crisp, or a plate of "cherubs on horseback," shrimp wrapped in sheets of lardo and grilled until the cured pork fat seems to infuse the plump, sweet flesh. Ignore the pork belly bites with horseradish aioli ($7) — basically deep-fried pork fat, a little too far into the Paula Deen canon — in favor of inch-wide slices of raw New York strip steak ($10), their cool, opulent blandness countered with flecks of deep-fried grated horseradish, Parmesan shavings, and feathery arugula leaves.

The bar snacks double as appetizers, but below them on the menu are the makings of a proper dinner. The Marlowe burger's listed, and Puccio rarely veers from the Cal-Med playbook, but looking over the menu, one gets the feeling that the chef's delighted to cook a little more extravagantly. The best of her food is both precise and gutsy: Baby carrots of a half-dozen colors, some blanched and some lightly pickled, clustered on a mound of carrot-top pesto dominated by the rich, sweet flavor of toasted pine nuts. A reworked Waldorf salad ($10) of greens, apples, pickled Concord grapes, and candied walnuts that replaces the mayonnaise with a clear, vivid lemon dressing. A fat pork chop ($24), all smoky, charred fat and deep-hued meat, served with kale roasted down to dense, dark wrinkles and a basil-perfumed pistou thickened with Italian butter beans. You'll see most tables carving into a "poulet rouge" ($22), a half-sized chicken roasted vertically in a cast-iron pan; the cooks have tossed Bloomsbury spinach into the pan too early, so the leaves roast up greasy and frizzled, but the tender meat, slathered in a chile-spiked tomato sauce, carves off the bone as easily as if it had been patted onto its skeleton with the lightest of hands.

The service is still gawky when it comes to the details — one night's waiter gave out consistently misguided descriptions of the wines, while another couldn't quite juggle all the tables he'd been assigned. The bussers and food runners, though, kept the meal flowing, and given the crowded room, it was astonishing how promptly every dish arrived. For its part, the kitchen rarely misfires; when it falters, the dishes come out pleasant but vague, such as caramelized scallops ($24) with shaved fennel and cauliflower puree, which I couldn't fault but barely remembered eating, or mussels ($17) supposedly steamed with fennel sausage and leeks but essentially heaped on an over-rich crème fraîche sauce.

Fig-apple crisp ($7) for dessert? Fine, but there's also birthday cake ($7). The coconut cream cake I ordered apparently celebrated Weinberg's birthday month. Frosted in whipped cream and shaved coconut, and moistened between the layers with coconut jam, the 8-inch-high slice was a Thiebaud fantasy rarely realized by real-life bakers. Someday, perhaps, Park Tavern's cakes will mark decades in business instead of months.

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