Tick … tick … tick.
I glance at my watch and then glance around the room to see others glancing at their watches. Everyone is wondering “Where is the food?” I feel as if I’m at a dinner party – a party where an overambitious host has trouble getting the meal on the table. But I’m not at a dinner party. I’m at Park Cafe in Duluth.
Set in the historic Knox House in downtown Duluth, you feel as if you’re in someone’s home – warm and comfortable. And just as at a dinner party, the experience at Park Cafe is unpredictable.
Our appetizer, a trio tasting of dips ($11), could have been made by the home-party host. The spinach-artichoke dip, thick and mayonnaise-y, boasts large pieces of onion and lacks both artichokes and seasoning. The Vidalia onion bake, topped with bread crumbs, contains undercooked onions and reminds you of the thin, chunky casserole Aunt Sally brings to every gathering. The beer-cheddar fondue tastes only of cheese – no beer flavor. Served with the dips, the herby-fried pita chips crunch perfectly but sink to the depths of your stomach – far too heavy for three cream-based dips.
For the baked goat cheese appetizer ($10), the kitchen keeps it simple with more success. A log of warmed goat cheese sits beneath “tomato fondue.” A misnomer, the fondue consists of Roma tomatoes studded with basil and garlic. After picking through charred slices, we find the grilled bread topped with soft, warm cheese and slightly sweet tomato constitutes a satisfyingly sweet and savory bite.
With the Wednesday night wine tasting ($10 with entree), we have three of four tastings while we wait for our main course. Here we are at that dinner party – sipping too much wine with too little in our bellies, making polite conversation while we wait … and wait. An hour and 45 minutes after placing our order, we receive entrees.
Similarly, on a separate lunch visit, our friendly server avoids eye contact as the time between courses stretches over an hour. Diners at the next table – little ones in tow – are hip-bouncing antsy children by the time lunch arrives. The chef later tells me that he kept a slow pace to ensure a quality product. Sadly, our entrees do not merit the wait.
The risotto ($20) mixed with braised beef, spinach and goat cheese reveals that the host of this party forgot to season the food in the rush to get it on the table. Upon reheating the following day, the risotto is improved exponentially with the addition of salt and pepper – bringing out the rich flavor of the beef. Likewise, the bland shepherd’s pie ($17) lacks seasoning, congeals on the edges, and contains a mixture of over- and undercooked vegetables thanks to their inconsistency in size.
Fortunately, one dish saves the party – the beautifully plated barbecue glazed pork tenderloin ($19). Perfectly cooked pork, seasoned with spicy cracked pepper, sits atop roasted sweet-potato mash and sports a tangy-sweet barbecue sauce.
Set aside some time, leave the kids at home and grab a snack. Then you’ll be set to enjoy a few glasses of wine and lots of conversation before the host gets dinner on the table at Park Cafe.PARK CAFE 3579 W. Lawrenceville St., Duluth, 770-476-2989 Food: Upscale Southern Service: Well intentioned but lacks polish Best dishes: Barbecue glazed pork tenderloin, baked goat cheese appetizer Vegetarian selections: Appetizers and salads Price range: $$-$$$ Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover Hours: 11 a.m.- 3 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; closed Sundays-Mondays. Children: Permitted but wait times between courses may be prohibitive Parking: Row of spaces on street Reservations: Suggested Wheelchair access: Yes Smoking: No Noise level: Moderate Patio: Yes Takeout: Yes