May 18, 1998 | Insatiable Critic

Trees Chic

Hungry? Make a dash for green acres. American Park brings fusion fuss to the Battery, and there's a stylish new tack at Central Park's Boathouse.

        Urban groundhogs that we are, New Yorkers long to leap into summer mode while spring is still deciding whether to be naughty or nice. We hunger for landscape, hit park lawns with winter flesh primed for braising, and rush to embrace the waterside. Never mind the spring monsoon: I am determined to find just-launched American Park somewhere on the big toe of Manhattan. Amazingly, the cabby thinks he actually knows how to find State Street. He deposits me on the southeast corner of historic Battery Park -- a tiny handkerchief of turf, just steps from the South Ferry subway stop. Gardeners point the way to the green-roofed pavilion (where the name will appear a week later). 

        Flats of daffodils wait on the patio beside a hole destined to house the alfresco kitchen. By June, the low-price bar and café with tapas on dim sum carts will hug the Promenade. But now, inside the smartly spiffed-up, glass-wrapped former storage shed, we gaze through the mist at the Staten Island ferry pushing off toward the Statue of Liberty, amazed by the enduring thrill of it. 

        Even more amazing is lunch itself: The nimble, eager crew. Close-up-perfect plates. Sophisticated flavorings. Tunisian-born Rad Matmati, working his way from dishwasher to range with stints at Oceana and Tropica, shows grit and gift here. The trio of adventurers who gamely splashed their way through unknown Zip Codes to join me for know-not-what are dazzled by the colorful still lifes and the bold saucery. A red-striped rouget floats over orzo and chickpeas. The tenderness of baby octopus nuzzles a rubble of Israeli couscous, olive slivers, and slices of baby artichoke. Tuna tartare tingles with ginger, shallot, and sesame to scoop up on potato chips. All is designed but not tortured, with trails of powerful potions painted on the plate. 

        None of these tasty juxtapositions was invented by Matmati. Baby sprouts and exotic coulis are everywhere. Slashings and dribbles are cliché. And if an heirloom tomato falls in the concrete forest, it goes without saying that 100 cooks craving stardom will hear it plop. What counts is how Matmati does it. He’s not sold his soul to cloying sweetness. Wine, preserved lemons, fresh citrus, and verjus deliver an acid punch that ties flavors together. A Tunisian harissa-and-lemon confit sets off his grilled tuna loin. Balsamic-scented spinach and a Merlot reduction add verve to sautéed red snapper with white beans. That’s his mother’s peppery tomato compote surrounding a whole black sea bass, roasted, boned, and garlanded with minced red onion and parsley. Grilled mahimahi with Japanese eggplant and shiitakes in spicy lemongrass-coconut-and-curry broth on rice noodles mimics a favorite dish of Hanoi. He does skirt steak at lunch and a pan-roasted veal chop or first-rate sirloin for the less adventurous. And I hope he won’t let anyone persuade him to turn down the fiery heat of the chipotle oil on his sensational short ribs. There is an intelligent wine list to back him up, priced high but not rudely so, as are entrées: $16 to $26 (a two-pound lobster is $44). 

        Pastry chef Jemal Edwards gave up his blue spiked hair of Nobu days for stints at Fauchon and Taillevent. Now he’s mastered such sweet razzmatazz as blown-sugar balls filled with champagne granité. The only flaw in the citrus gratin is how tiny it is. Nothing could be more elegant than his chocolate marquise with curled spikes of chocolate and a shard of pistachio brittle on a swirl of yellow and chartreuse. Primed for an outrage, I am forced to concede that the clarion call of curry in the sauce somehow works. 

       American Park is still a work-in-progress, the latest waterside dream of Frank and Jeanne Cretella, the Staten Island couple who resurrected Lundy’s in Sheepshead Bay and run the Boathouse Café in Central Park. Obsessed with seeding the waterfront, Frank Cretella likes to drive into Manhattan at 5 a.m. and sip his coffee as he scouts locations. Downtown, he promises valet parking. But no one can guess if the kitchen will keep its edge when everything opens by early June and seating jumps from 90 to 200. For now, it’s a serene retreat, worth braving the West Side IRT -- or the $30 round-trip cab ride -- to impress a visitor from overseas or fall in love again with New York. 

American Park at the Battery; inside the park off State Street (809-5508). Lunch, Monday through Friday 11:45 a.m. to 3 p.m.; brunch, Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Sunday till 6 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Friday 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. A.E., D.C., Disc., M.C., V. 

        Even at its slapdash worst, the Boathouse Café was a tranquilizer as precious as Prozac. But now the Cretellas have pumped half a million dollars into a canvas roof and a glass-walled party pavilion, calling it Park View at the Boathouse, with plans to keep it open year-round. 

        There is already an hour wait for tables when we arrive for lunch at 1:15 on a June-like April day. We must wait in the bar till all four of us are here. “We are only three,” I lie, but I won’t let the waiter remove the fourth place setting as we are seated. “Just in case she can make it after all.” He warns us that a late-arriving guest cannot order once we do because it throws off the timing. “I’m not trying to be mean,” he says, “but we count on having your table in an hour and a half.” So there I am, already in a pout. 

        It will take a miracle to jolly me out of it. But that’s just what we find. Blue skies; a sense of being in the Bois de Boulogne; a swan that thinks it’s Pavlova, snorting for attention as it skims across the water; and food that’s infinitely better than it used to be here. John Villa’s sprightly contemporary cooking that never seemed smart enough for the grandeur of JUdson Grill seems festive enough here. These are pleasant lunch-in-the-park notions: Seared tuna carpaccio on avocado relish. Three small but delicious crab dumplings in a steamer. Fine bass-and-tuna sashimi with tomato, sesame, and sprouts moistened with scallion oil. 

        True, the shrimp summer rolls are overreliant on veggie-and-noodle filler. The Amish chicken with its first-rate fried potato strings can be dry. And the undercooked white beans do nothing for the day’s singularly uninspired vegetable soup (though there’s nothing amiss in the nuttily crisp skate with white asparagus in a tarragon sauce or the red snapper with corn and purple potatoes). How about more stylish sandwiches, like the grouper club sandwich on sourdough? 

        I don’t mind the fifteen-minute walk from my West Side brownstone at night when I’m with the brawny Road Food Warrior (although he prefers to do it with an armed guard). But it is pouring this Friday evening, so we decide to take a taxi to Fifth and catch the Boathouse trolley. “It runs every ten or twelve minutes,” the reservationist tells me. We wait, pacing under our separate but equal umbrellas, eyeing the four or five figures lurking nearby under the trees, very Magritte. Fifteen minutes pass. My mate wants to walk, but neither of us knows the path from the East Side. And then there is the slight menace of those distant loiterers. At 25 minutes, a van arrives. Two men alight. “You must be the Boathouse trolley,” I say, about to climb in. 

        One man laughs: “We’re the people who bring food to the homeless.” Sure enough, we are surrounded now by the lurkers. Defeated, we slosh off along a path through the brush. Soaked, we stumble into the entryway. “Is there a trolley, or isn’t there?” I cry. The woman at the door seems amused. “I think we have a trolley, don’t we?” she asks. 

        With two pots of hot tea, we dry out under the heat lamps of the canvas roof on the terrace as the van arrives belatedly with our indignant guests. But none of us can fight the enchantment of the Impressionist landscape before us -- raindrops dancing like jewels on the lake, spring greenery like velvet. Annoyance quickly melts in the care of a solicitous waitress and a fine Sterling Cabernet. The mingled brine of caviar and sea urchin on carefully cooked diver scallops, and the truffle scent in a pear-watercress-and-endive salad add to the spell. The tuna and its crisp taro cake please everyone. But you’ll never persuade me that lobster tail goes on the same plate with squab, the bird expertly caramelized and rare. Too bad both the dorade and the chicken are dry. 

        Villa’s desserts -- flourless chocolate cake, the too-fancy rhubarb tart, lush trés léches cake, sweet nougat glacé with passion fruit -- are good enough. But by midnight, the canvas overhead has sprung a few leaks. My guest’s shoulder is sodden, and I’ve put up my umbrella so I can grab a last citrus-berry tartlet and pay the bill, about $70 per person, including tip ($40 for three courses and iced tea at lunch). The wandering “trolley” is parked outside, waiting to drop us on Fifth. The real trolley, freshly refurbished, will be back again soon, pledged to make its circuit, then hover by the door till the last reveler surrenders. 

Park View at the Boathouse, Central Park; enter from East or West 72nd Street (517-2233). Lunch, Monday through Friday noon to 4 p.m.; brunch, Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; dinner, daily from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. A.E., D.C., M.C., V.