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Mike Cohen rejoices in his long-awaited dinner at Park Restaurant

    Park Restaurant (https://www.parkresto.com) opened on Victoria Avenue in Westmount in 2012. For matters I cannot properly explain, it took me eight years to finally experience one of the city’s most talked-about dining establishments.

    In November 2016 the restaurant had to close for about two months after water damage from a fire in the building necessitated an entirely new rebuild. Park’s team rose to the occasion and they have not looked back since.

    Open for brunch, (weekends), lunch and dinner, Park offers organic, seasonal and sustainable fare to a loyal clientele of regulars and newbies like our family.

    The rise of Antonio Park

    Antonio Park

    World-renowned chef Antonio Park is the brains behind this establishment and a number of other culinary ventures. Thanks to a fresh garden that spanned acres, and his mom’s insistence on creating everything from scratch, the drive for perfection, sustainability, and farm-to-table cooking became his raison d’être. This mantra carried him through years of training under Japan’s most revered cooking masters, fed his ambition to work his way up from a dishwashing station to his accomplishments today.

    “My life starts in South America,” Park explains, identifying Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. “That’s where I spent my childhood. My mom doesn’t want me to say that I’m born in Argentina; she wants me to say I’m Korean. So I’m a Korean Montrealer who grew up in Asunción, Buenos Aires, and Rio. What I really am is a messed-up Latino with kimchi in his blood who is seriously in love with sashimi. The food I make at Park is who I am as a person—a blend of the countries I’ve lived in and the cultures that formed me.

    “I learned how to cook from my mom, watching her make things from scratch. The simplest things ever: milling your own spices at home on a stone, drying your own gochugaru peppers, fermenting your own miso, making your own soya sauce. She opened my eyes to everything. How to skin apples. How to cut green onion, napa cabbage and daikon. She gave me so much grief if I wouldn’t peel garlic properly.

    “We wouldn’t go to the market to buy fruits and vegetables; they were all in the garden. Pomegranates, yucca, mandarins, zucchinis, grapes, watermelons, and eggplants, pumpkins: you name it, you can grow anything you want there. We had a massive backyard; 47,000 square feet and full of produce. To this day, the importance of freshness and top-quality ingredients defines what I do.”

    Park said he grew up around small farmers, sustainable fishermen, and local food before anyone used those terms to describe them.” “So this is who I am, whatever this mix is,” he says. “Forget the word fusion. I make sushi, I ferment kimchi, I love asado. I’ve been a chef in Tokyo, Osaka, New York, Toronto, and Montreal. People think it’s a sushi place, or a Korean restaurant, but it’s also the South American flavours of my youth.”

    Baptism in Quebec and Japan

    In 1990 Park’s family moved to British Columbia. He was in the English as a Second Language (ESL) program at Burnaby High School. It rained so much that they moved to Montreal within a year.  He will never forget how they drove across the whole country. While he hated how long it took, he learned a lot of things about Canada… “I didn’t speak French,” he said. “On my first day at school in Montreal, someone threw a chair at me. There was a big fight between Koreans and Latinos. I was in the middle, getting beat up by both sides. And that was my introduction to life in Quebec.

    As the years went by Park got a job in his teens as a dishwasher at a Chinese buffet. At the same time, he worked at my parent’s dépanneur, doing inventory, organizing the shelves, checking food and labor costs, and always working on cleanliness. When his sister opened a restaurant called Takara, he did dishes and prepped and mixed rice for three years. That was his first kitchen job. After that, he apprenticed at her other restaurant, Tomo, a North Americanized Japanese restaurant. California rolls, beef teriyaki with chop suey, spicy scallop tempura—that sort of thing. In the Japanese restaurant scene in Montreal, everyone around him was doing spicy mayo and maki rolls. So he decided to get serious about cooking and went to Toronto and realized it was the same as here. All of North America was, it turns out. So he packed up and went to Japan to learn the proper technique from the source and enrolled in culinary school and trained under masters.”

    Our Dining Experience

    Today Park is a legend. Besides Park on Victoria Avenue, he is a partner in a number of other dining establishments.

    Park was kind enough to invite us to his restaurant. There were three of us for this incredible dining experience. Our fabulous server David, who has been on staff for four years, guided us perfectly and recommended the omakase tasting menu. What a treat this was.

    The restaurant can seat 50 people and 12 more on the seasonal terrace. There is no delivery, but takeout remains a popular option. When you dine at Park, don’t be surprised to see a member of the Montreal Canadiens, someone from the opposing team or a movie star like regular Neil Patrick Harris. Park considers him a friend. 

    We started off with some bluefin tuna tartar, with Spanish caviar, gochujang, mayo and yukhoe sauce. It was crispy and delicious and frankly, we did not want it to end. What followed was a roll consisting of roasted eggplant, black eggplant purée, roasted quail, garlic, flower, lemon kosho and pearl onions, another winner.

    Next came two Nigiri (special sushi rice treated with vinegar) boards. The first consisted of: Albacore tuna with Japanese shishito pepper and gochujang sauce; hamachi (yellowtail and marinated jalapeno pepper); kampachi (amberjack with chimichurri); and torched chinook salmon, with basil vinaigrette, sesame and reduction of maple soy sauce. Each piece was beyond super. The second included: Otoro, fatty belly tuna with wasabi relish; kaimin tai (acupunctured – yes you read that correctly- acupunctured snapper with arima sansho pepper, marinated in soy for an unbelievable two years);  torched chu toro, medium fat part of bluefin tuna and hokkaido uni; and shima aji, yellow stripped horse mackerel with green onions and fresh ginger.

    The surprises kept coming with the gnocchi a la Parisienne, a dish that included clams, clam and kabocha cream, pickled kabocha, roasted kabocha and crème fraiche.

    We concluded with some maki: bluefin tuna, marinated eggplant, sweet potato chips, ginger vinaigrette and gochugaru oil.

    Did we have room for dessert? We could hardly resist what came our way: three identical bowls containing a decadent combination of coco white chocolate panna cotta, pineapple, mango kiwi, pomegranate, mango and coriander sorbet, mango and mandarin jelly, mango and coriander gel and coconut foam.    

    Park is located at 378 Victoria and opens for lunch Monday to Friday from 11:30 am to 2:30 pm and for dinner Monday to Wednesday from 5:30 pm to 10 pm and Thursday to Saturday from 5 pm to 11 pm. Brunch is served Saturdays from 10 am to 2:30 pm.

    Mike Cohen

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