Park places come up aces
By STEVE CUOZZO
Last Updated: 10:21 AM, June 23, 2010
Posted: 1:25 AM, June 23, 2010
The best thing about Tavern on the Green was its outdoor garden. The canopy of summer greenery and rainbow glow from Japanese lanterns made up for plodding service and fussy dishes beyond the kitchenâ€™s grasp. It was a refuge from the cityâ€™s grunge and soot â€” and from the tourist-trampled Crystal Room and other run-down indoor spaces.
With Tavern gone, though, you can still dine under the trees in a Manhattan park.
We donâ€™t mean al fresco places that are basically snack stands, like Shake Shack in Madison Square Park, or waterfront ones like the 79th Street Boat Basin Cafe. Weâ€™re talking places that feel like youâ€™re in a forest. The Boathouse Cafe in Central Park and the New Leaf Restaurant & Bar in Fort Tryon Park boast transporting arboreal settings. Theyâ€™re enchanting enough to set aside culinary quibbles and aversion to bugs and breezes.
There isnâ€™t much new to say about the Boathouse near 72nd Street. Smartly improved in recent years by Dean Poll, it might have the most beautiful location in New York, or anywhere in the universe â€” midpark at lakeside, with glimpses of Central Park West tower-tops. Itâ€™s heart-stoppingly beautiful, outdoors and in â€” the latter, thanks to waterâ€™s-edge walls that come down in warm weather.
The American menu gets the job done. (Dinner appetizers $14-$18, entrees $25-$42). Itâ€™s enough to almost forgive Poll for his role in letting Tavern go dark (the city closed it when he failed to make a deal with the union).
The New Leaf in Upper Manhattan stands atop a hill in Fort Tryon Park with indoor and outdoor seating. But while the dining room inside the 1930s-vintage, cobblestone and granite cottage feels rustic enough, itâ€™s gloomily lit and in need of better dÃ©cor.
The outdoor patioâ€™s another story. It doesnâ€™t have Tavernâ€™s rainbow lights or topiary animals, but it doesnâ€™t need any: The trees are the thing. They envelop you like a quilt. You canâ€™t tell how high you are, or where you are. The sense of dislocation â€” you might be upstate or in a Swiss glade â€” is sheer bliss.
Moonlight through the leaves stirs the least romantic soul; on moonless nights, the glow from old-fashioned street lamps does the trick.
Executive chef Scott Campbellâ€™s menu is best when it sticks to simpler modern-American dishes, especially salads made from local and artisanal vegetables and greens. Flash-fried rock shrimp were irresistibly sweet, crunchy and tender.
Entrees can be over-busy. Iâ€™d like delicious, miso-glazed sea scallops better if I could find them beneath risotto, morels, asparagus and tons more items.
Even harder to find at New Leaf is parking. You can go by subway (the A to 190th Street), but itâ€™s challenging at night. There are only a handful of parking spots in front of the restaurant. The hosts breezily suggested parking at the Cloisters or on Cabrini Boulevard, both a long stroll in the dark.
Dinner appetizers run from $8-$14 and entrees $25-$32. Profits support the restaurantâ€™s nonprofit operator, the industrious New York Restoration Project, set up by Bette Midler to â€œclean and greenâ€ the cityâ€™s outdoor public spaces.
But donâ€™t think about the bill at either place â€” just give in to the green that matters, summerâ€™s wreath too briefly woven.