As I’ve collaborated with other food critics on various projects, I’ve sometimes been criticized for valuing a restaurant’s “cool factor” — its creativity, location, décor and clientele — more than its food. I generally deny those accusations. But as I found myself trying to justify the subpar cuisine during my recent visit to Park on Fremont, I wondered whether they had a point. I wanted to like this place so badly I was striving for reasons to cut it slack. But in the end, I care too much about good food. I can’t honestly recommend the new hotspot’s cuisine to anyone other than inebriated hipsters who want to order cool-sounding dishes in a nicely decorated spot on the coolest block in Las Vegas.
In January, I listed Park on Fremont as one of the most anticipated restaurants of 2013. At first glance, it seems to fulfill my expectations. The interior is decorated like a posh hunting club with a slightly satanic twist. It boasts ornate wallpaper, bizarre paintings of game animals in unnatural states, and provocative works of taxidermy (the deer has gold assault rifles attached to its antlers). The cocktail menu is laid out to resemble an old punk rock concert flier. There’s a great beer selection, and some intriguing specialty cocktails. And most important, there’s outdoor seating perfect for people-watching on this town’s hottest promenade. I don’t know if there’s free wi-fi, but if there is, I’d gladly drive here everyday and use it as my office.
Even the food menu, while small, looks intriguing. I’ve always been a fan of bar food with some twists, and many of the dozen offerings here are just that. There’s a pair of burgers, one stuffed with Monterey jack and cheddar, the other with pepperjack and sautéed mushrooms, each topped with bacon ($12). The chicken bar bites ($9) are crusted in cornflakes and accompanied by sauces like sweet honey mustard, honey soy and chipotle barbecue. And health-conscious customers can get a veggie wrap ($11).
The problem is in the execution. My friends and I tried four dishes, and each failed on at least one level. There was the Philly steak sandwich topped not with cheese, but with macaroni and cheese ($12). It had the potential to be decadent, but the underlying steak sandwich was pretty subpar, and the mac and cheese wasn’t much better than what you can get in a grocery store. When my friend asked our waitress whether they brined the corned beef for the Reuben ($11) in-house, it was obvious his hopes were too high. But the dried-out meat on the sandwich looked as if it hadn’t even been sliced to order. The chicken in the chicken and waffle sandwich ($11) was pounded super-thin and overcooked. And the sweet potato tater tots we got as a side were saturated with maple syrup. I was impressed with the perfectly cooked eggs that came with our chaquiles ($14), but the low-end steak that accompanied them was reminiscent of what you’d get at a Denny’s or a low-rent casino coffee shop. The only thing that was actually above average as a whole was a side of French fries, primarily because of the sriracha-infused ketchup.
All of the servers I encountered, both at the bar and at my table, were friendly and knowledgeable about the food and the beer list. I honestly feel bad they have to serve up such poor fare.
Perhaps I’m being too hard on Park. Maybe nobody expects it to serve good food. Maybe everyone will just be happy with the addition of such a great new bar to the neighborhood. And I can certainly see how the grub would be good enough for late-night revelers looking to put something other than booze into their stomachs. But the menu seems so much more ambitious than that. I have to assume the owners wanted to offer something more. If so, they need to get the kitchen staff to execute their dream a little better. Because right now, it’s failing miserably, and no amount of coolness can make a serious foodie overlook that fact.
PARK ON FREMONT, 506 E. Fremont St., 834-3164. Read more about the Las Vegas dining scene on Al Mancini’s blog, www.almancini.net, and follow him on Twitter @almancinivegas.