Park Plaza Gardens

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I've always been a fan of Park plaza Gardens, so at times the enthusiasm has flagged. There was a time in the '90s and even into the 2000's that the once venerable restaurant was a mere shadow of its former self. A few years ago, I strted to get excited about this place again.

I am even more enthusiastic about the quality and consistency of the food and service at Park Plaza Gardens now than I was four years ago.

Steak and fish were both highlights of my visits. The bone-in ribeye ($40) was a substantial steak, grilled to the requested medium-rare, and graced with the slightest hint of truffles in the demi-glace.

The New York strip au poivre ($37) also featured a fine piece of meat, but someone seems to have forgotten that poivre means pepper; it hadn’t the slightest hint of any. Instead, the sauce was a wild mushroom and cognac demi-glace.

If I had to choose one entrée that stood out among the rest it would be the crab-stuffed grouper ($32). The fish was firm and fresh-tasting, and the accompanying crabmeat added the perfect grace note. A caper sauce gave the two just the right saltiness. The plate was rounded out with fluffy jasmine rice and sautéed fresh baby spinach.

On a lunch visit I enjoyed the herb-roasted king salmon ($18), although I’m not sure where the herbs came into it. It was a long but slender steak with a good amount of fattiness in the texture. The salmon sat atop a mound of mashed potatoes and was surrounded by a puddle of roasted tomato coulis spiced with ginger, a lovely sauce.

But the blackened burger with blue cheese ($11) was disappointingly dry.

There were a number of good appetizers but the crab cakes ($13) were the standout. They had plenty of crab held together with a minimum of filler and with a light jacket of panko to give it a crispy crust. With a salad of baby greens, it was enough for a light entrée.

The pesto and goat cheese stuffed eggplant ($10) had the creamy richness of the cheese with the tanginess of the pesto with some more of that wonderful tomato coulis. Fried mac-n-cheese balls ($8), crusted with more panko, were only worth trying out of curiosity.

Special soups are listed as Chef Santos’ soup of the day ($7) with no information of who Santos is. He or she presented a chicken and corn chowder on one of my visits, but instead of being a thick soup, as most people expect a chowder to be, it was basically a brothy chicken soup with a few kernels of corn and small chunks of potato and chicken meat.

Actually one of the best starters at Park Plaza Gardens is the bread basket, which has delicious toasted bread with a little cheese and spicy pepper. How much better it would be with pure butter instead of the dish of over garlicked olive oil that is offered.

Service was very good on all my visits, and the cross-service among the staff ensures that no table goes wanting. The wine list is not extensive but has appropriate selections.

Park Plaza Gardens has two dining venues, the café that spills from the bar at the front of the building onto the sidewalk, and the more formal dining room in the back. That space had undergone a renovation back when the restaurant was rebranded with the Chef Justin name. It retains its outdoor ambience with red brick flooring and walls and towering trees, but all under the glass ceiling. An open window to the kitchen doesn’t offer diners much of a peek at the goings-on there but does add to the noise level.

I prefer the dining room, but to get an idea of PPG’s place in the Winter Park scene, take a sidewalk table and watch how diners and passers-by greet each other as the come and go. It is a neighborhood restaurant, just in a nice neighborhood. But in the dining room, Park Plaza Gardens can still be the special occasion restaurant it once was. Even more so now.