I must have been drunk the first time I went to Parkside, because I don't remember any details about the eating part of the evening, but I know I had a great time with my three awesome kids and their various significant others. It wasn't until I was finishing up a second dinner at Parkside that my son refreshed my memory with details about our first disappointing experience. My son has a sophisticated palate, so I trust his account of our first Parkside dinner which apparently included one selection from the raw menu, a soupy green concoction that tasted as unappetizing as it looked. He also reminded me of the cucumber & rosemary cocktail that was pretty much the worst thing ever.
It's possible that I buried the details of that first night at Parkside because I so desperately wanted to like the place. Parkside is like that guy you agree to go out with a few more times because he looks like John Cusack, even though he already committed a deal-breaker on the first date by ordering his steak well-done and then complaining to the manager that his steak sucked. Feel free to insert your own deal-breaker in this analogy, although you'll be hard pressed to find anything worse than ordering a steak well-done.
There are so many things to like about Parkside, starting with the Michael Hsu designed interior, a perfect pairing of urban style and casual comfort. The ambiance created by this design is what makes me want to love everything about Parkside. With the high ceilings, captains booths and great lighting, it just feels good to be there.
Parkside's Sixth Street location is a drawback for me as I tend to avoid areas that smell of urine and cliche. But besides the obvious advantage of a constant stream of foot traffic, Parkside's choice of location makes sense in an ironic kind of way.
Conceptually, Parkside has everything I want in a restaurant - great ambiance, a chef-inspired menu with a focus on using locally-sourced ingredients, friendly and competent service, a creative cocktail menu, and it has received high marks from respected critics, including Buon Appetit which included Parkside in its 2009 picks for "Top 10 New American Taverns." The only thing it doesn't have is great tasting food.
It's Not You, It's Me
I could attribute my Parkside disconnect to the high prices. That was one of the details I failed to remember about my first Parkside experience. Again with the tricky ambiance. The low-key atmosphere makes it easy to ignore the fact that this is upscale dining with upscale cocktails that result in upscale charges to your credit card. The cost-to-benefit ratio certainly has something to do with my attitude toward Parkside, but I can't say that cost alone is the issue.
The problem might be me. My expectations are incompatible with the Parkside agenda. Maybe I haven't ordered the right thing. My recent entree selection was based on the waiter's suggestion of pork jowls with polenta. I love all things pork, but I'm not so fond of polenta. So, was it wrong for me to intentionally order something I don't like with the expectation that the chef would make it taste like something entirely different? Isn't that the equivalent of marrying a Hugo in the hopes of turning him into a Sawyer? Or, was it reasonable for me to expect the pork jowls to be deliciously crispy and flavorful as to render the polenta obsolete? If so, my expectations weren't met as these were limp and bland. Hey, there's that dating metaphor again.
I had a similar problem with my drink order. I'm typically a wine drinker, but the cocktail menu enticed me with descriptions like this one for a ginger rollins - Bombay sapphire, lime, pineapple, Peychaud bitters & ginger ale. It looks great on paper, but do all these things really belong in one drink? You don't know the answer until you order it. It's an $8 crap shoot. Which I lost on the first round. So this time I thought I'd go with the Old Fashioned, because the menu mentioned muddled fruit. Another dumb decision. It was somewhere in between bitter and crappy and bitter. Then again, I'm not familiar with how an Old Fashioned should taste, so how do I know that this one wasn't a perfectly good version? It's this kind of second-guessing that keeps me from giving up on Parkside.
I sampled some of the other orders at our table and found them similarly disappointing. This might have had less to do with the quality of the food than with my own taste preferences. The macaroni with guyere and cheddar was a hit with everyone but me, because I've never understood the joy of macaroni and cheese anyway. The fried okra was pretty good, but, again, not my thing. My son ordered the grilled bar steak with fries and aoli. He wasn't impressed, but is anyone ever impressed with steak frites? It is what it is. The steak was cooked to a perfectly acceptable medium rare, but like everything else, it just didn't have that special something that one would expect at these prices.
Can We Still Be Friends?
I just don't see this working out. It's not for lack of trying on either of our parts. We were both invested in this relationship. My investment was mostly in dollars. About $300 worth. But hey, at least we enjoyed a happy ending dessert of fresh maple cream-filled sugar donuts and vanilla ice cream, finished off with a delicate ornament of spun sugar. Perfection. I guess that's why dessert always comes at the end of a meal, so you're left with only sweet memories. And lingering thoughts of what might have been. Damn it, I can't quit you Parkside!