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Inn at the Park

3615 Fifth Avenue, Bankers Hill




A few days before the grand opening of the splashy new Dish restaurant-nightclub in Hillcrest, I decided to check out one of its forerunners. Dish had been bombarding my email with publicity releases that glittered with Tinkerbell sparkles about how this would be a pioneering venue where gays and straights would (gasp) mix and mingle.

That’s new? Puh-leeze. Top of my head, I flashed on the “Dish” of Manhattan in the late 1960s, Max’s Kansas City (where my cousin Peg waitressed), a Warhol-crowd favorite where every conceivable earthly gender (and possibly some extraterrestrial life forms) trouped in for dinner. (Afterwards: dancing to the juke at the Broome Street Expressway, or maybe the newest Charles Ludlam play from the Ridiculous Theatrical Company.) At least in big cities, there probably have always been a few all-inclusive bohemian venues where everybody mixes it up.

One of our own long-term institutions of comfortable mixing and mingling is Hillcrest’s Inn at the Park dinner house in the Park Manor, a charming old Hillcrest hotel. (A rooftop venue called Top of the Park serves lunches on weekdays.) About a year ago, chef Anthony Wilhelm was promoted to executive chef, and his upgrades to the menu afforded another good reason to check it out.

The attractive, well-populated bar faces the dining room across a wide aisle. The bar includes a piano, with live musicians every night after 7:00 p.m., solos or duos, bathing the area with the ironic-tinged sentimentalities of classic Broadway show tunes. The dining room has dim lighting, white tablecloths, plushy banquettes, and ornately framed reproductions of sun-dappled Impressionist eye-candy (Renoir, oui; Van Gogh, maybe no).

Jim hadn’t eaten here in years but does drop in regularly for drinks. (“The piano bar is a cool date spot midweek,” he said, “although you’d better warn your readers that the Friday night scene is a little different — it’s nicknamed ‘Boy’s Night.’ ”) Arriving with Jim, James, and Jonathan (we should form a jug band called “the Jay Birds”), I looked around the room and was doubly surprised: by the number of Gen-Y heteros (maybe 15 percent) and by the many faces that looked like people I’d like to know. People are having a good time here, and enjoyment lights up their features.

Service was attentive, competent, smart. Food? Well…It’s not “foodie” food to astonish or thrill or impress, more like background music for the piano tunes. With a little added mango here and chipotle there, it’s an update of the faintly Continental comfort food that you might have eaten, pre-1970 (or in Sacramento even today), at the “nice” college-town restaurant when your parents came to visit. The regular crowd at the Inn is conservative in its tastes, meat-and-potatoes guys, and they don’t take too readily to innovation. I’d have to call the style Log Cabin Republican Cuisine.

The bread was crusty and good and also included skinny breadsticks. The kitchen was all out of frog’s legs that evening, and when we learned that the charcuterie plate items are purchased-out, we skipped it. The most satisfying appetizer was calamari fritto misto — tender, crusty fried squid, delicate zucchini rounds, and just-right crisp-tender broccoli clusters, with two dips — a smooth pink chipotle aioli with a little sting of heat, and a thick, Kaffir-lime avocado sauce with a lash of spice.

That evening, though, there were several odd glitches in kitchen performance. A steamed artichoke filled with a spinach-lemon-Stilton fondue was a surprising slip-up: The artichoke was drastically undercooked. The leaves were stiffly resistant to leaving the nest, and the heart was harder than Dick Cheney’s. The sauce, although vaguely pleasant, was blander than a morning talk-show host.

A crab-and-avocado tower and a grilled prawn and mango salad were nearly identical: Both had spring greens, mango, and avocado, although one or the other also had pink, cottony wedges of underripe tomato. They were supposed to sport two distinctly different dressings, but evidently there was another slip-up. I wasn’t certain in the dim lighting, but both salads appeared and tasted not merely underdressed, but stark naked. (This was confirmed by the doggy bags later that night.) It was a very busy evening — but surely not so busy that the salads didn’t have time to dress before they came out in public. The first salad had plenty of good crabmeat, while the other had precisely two medium, garlic-broiled shrimps, cooked tough. I don’t know why they’d skimp on shrimp, since this size isn’t expensive. Perhaps it was another plating mishap.

Entrées come with either the soup du jour or a house salad, with options for other soups or salads at a slight surcharge. We all opted for the evening’s mushroom bisque. I’ve had some mushroom bisques that knocked my socks off (e.g., at nearby Seasons), but this wasn’t one of them. It was just nice soup.

An entrée special featured beef tenderloin, chipotle béarnaise, soft-shell crab, spicy mashed potatoes, and veggies (which I’ve already forgotten). The beef, properly rare, was a tad tough for a tenderloin. The other ingredients seemed incoherent, a bunch of good stuff flung together almost at random — more like a bad imitation of John Cage than the artfully complex melodies of Cole Porter.

Seeing white truffle seared sea scallops on the menu led Jim and Jonathan to quiz me about the difference between black and white truffles. (No, I don’t have 800 free words to go into it right now — there are meatier issues ahead.) The dish itself didn’t help to illuminate the distinction, as there wasn’t enough white truffle flavor (from oil) to even notice. The scallops, though, were sweet and tender, complemented by fava beans and applewood-smoked bacon. Their starch was “forbidden black rice,” which looked like a shorter-grained wild rice but proved hard and grainy, as though reverting to the raw state. (Needed more cooking or, especially, more liquid.)

The same rice also came with seared duck breast, so it seems the mysterious taboo has been lifted by the ghost of the Last Empress, the High Pooh-Bah, whoever. The duck was tender and enjoyable, flattered by a cherry-rhubarb coulis.

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