Club-like restaurants tend to have a very poor reputation among food writers. After all, we’re a group of people who take food way too seriously.
Step towards Ainsworth Park, a new restaurant at the space that previously housed Kibo and Japonais, and the first thing you see is the velvet rope. Not a great first impression. While I did read prior to arriving that the restaurant has an abundance of televisions, and would likely resemble a sports bar, a bouncer was unexpected.
Luckily it was a weekday, and the velvet rope was just for show. Once inside, you’re quickly surrounded by bars, lounges, and televisions. To help paint a mental picture, there’s a lounge on the right, a lounge and bar upstairs in the loft, a bar in the center-back of the space, a lounge to the adjacent left, and a third bar by the far left. As for the televisions, they’re quite tastefully hidden behind reflective glass with a mirror finish. When the screen is off, you hardly know that they’re there.
If you have successfully drawn a mental image of the restaurant based on my earlier description, you probably figured out the lone area left for proper sit-down dinners. The main dining area is located at the left of the entrance. In terms of spare footage, the dining area is quite small. No worries, there will be plenty of space for you to “wait at the bar” if your table isn’t ready.
The food. It’s real good. (Guess you weren’t expecting this?)
The menu encompassed global cuisine staples, but each redefined and generalized for an American audience. For example, the the roasted beet and kale salad had Austrian characteristics, while the baked spicy jumbo prawns smelled and tasted like gambas ajillo, the famed Spanish tapas dish.
Ainsworth Park also featured a wide variety of sliders, befitting for a restaurant with so many televised sporting events going on at once. The pulled pork slider with red cabbage slaw is a very classic and solid option.
I was surprised by the complexity of the preparation when the entrees actually arrived. The roasted (bricked) chicken featured crispy skin and a moist center. Long story short, it’s one of the best chicken dishes I’ve had in New York. (In my mental ranking, it trails only Edi and the Wolf, tied with A Voce).
Lamb shank with polenta is braised and topped with grilled peppers and onions. Not as spectacular as the chicken, but still a solid option.
For dessert, you can’t go wrong with this apple cobbler.
The meal at Ainsworth Park was a solid surprise, and exceeded all of my generalized expectations, not just one for a club/bar like restaurant. For the long run, it remains to be seen how the kitchen can continue to strive for high marks when most of the patrons don’t demand too high a level of culinary chops, or are perhaps too buzzed to discern the difference. If the team at Ainsworth Park manages to balance the excellent food and energetic bar crowd, they just might redeem the image of clubby restaurants.
What does this rating mean?
From the Notebook: In case anyone was wondering, there’s a bathroom attendant. The TV’s are tastefully hidden from view when turned off, a very neat, and architecturally pleasing design. The meal was complimentary, though we were not obligated to write nor did it affect my opinion.
111 E 18th St
New York, NY 10003