Park Cafe Neighborly ambiance, layered flavors makes restaurant a feel-good experience

Acorn squash soup with fromage blanc, gremolata and spiced seeds at The Park Cafe.

Karalee Nielsen Fallert may very well possess “The Meyer Touch.” Danny Meyer, the founder and CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group in New York, is winner of 25 James Beard Foundation Awards and one of the most innovative restaurateurs in modern history. Like Meyer, Fallert has managed to develop and nurture restaurants and cafes that resonate with their customers.

They each have had to shutter one property: Tabla for Meyer and Raval for Fallert.

They both deliver on hospitality. They get it is not about what you eat (although that counts, as well), but more important is how you make people feel.

Karalee Nielsen Fallert and Tim Mink, doing business as Revolutionary Eating Ventures, opened Taco Boy, Folly Beach in 2006; followed by Monza in 2007; Taco Boy downtown and Closed for Business in 2009; and The Royal American in 2011.

In 2012, they each went on to pursue independent business opportunities.

The affectionately called “REV” is now doing business as Rerun Restaurants with former REV associates April Bennett and Kelly Dougherty assuming the company’s operations.

Tim Mink went on to partner with Brooks Reitz to form Neighbourhood, a hospitality design and concept development firm. In 2014, they opened Leon’s Oyster Shop and in January of this year, St. Alban.

In 2014, Fallert opened two new restaurants, starting with Lee Lee’s Hot Kitchen with her mentor and friend Lily Lei last January. This was the 16th restaurant in their combined experience.

In this month’s Charleston Magazine, Fallert says she learned to love the restaurant industry while working for Lei when Fallert was 17. “She showed me that a woman could greet guests and make people feel important, keenly watch the pulse of a dining room, shrewdly haggle with purveyors, jump on the line and dig cooks out of the weeds if necessary, and pat the perspiration without anyone looking, all without staining her designer dress.”

Fallert adds, “This business is about people and how you make them feel, as well as how many pots you can stir at one time.”

Last February saw the opening of The Park Cafe with Xan McLaughlin as operating partner and John Amato as executive chef. The former Granville’s and Biggie’s Gastropub space has been transformed into a bright and lively neighborhood gathering spot. Fallert and her team give more than lip service to “local.” They have accomplished this by user-friendly opening hours for those seeking breakfast, coffee or grab-and-go items. They offer a weekday happy hour with reasonably priced snacks to partner with their daily cocktail, wine of the hour or “porch beer” program.

On the bar side, cheese plates, field pea hummus or a daily charcuterie plate cosset a well-structured craft beer, wine and cocktail menu.

Hungry? Choose from a trim menu of entrees. Not so much? Generous appetizers are easily combined for grazing, dining or sharing.

Chef Amato has taken the syllabus of global comfort foods and tricked them into being just different enough: fromage blanc with the smoked chicken salad, shiitake mushrooms into the pickle mix, white ham gravy as the gesso to a pork chop’s sear, Green Goddess dressing pooling under a parmesan crusted chicken breast.

He has a well-refined sense of layering flavors and textures. Sweet dates relax the muscular chew of shredded kale as a citrus vinaigrette softens and balances the nutty, vegetal notes of this salad tossed with almonds. The ability to dissect flavor profiles is revealed in the suave roasted acorn squash soup dappled with pungent goat cheese and sprinkled with spiced squash seeds as a gremolata, the herbal condiment that typically accompanies osso buco Milanese adding crunch, spice and tang to the velvet elixir of the squash.

An appetizer portion of clams, white beans, yellow pepper rings and Andouille sausage seethed in a piquant broth was marred only by some chewy beans. Grilled bread shored up this soup/stew with perfectly toasted crumb that retained a measure of moistness within. Obsessive or accidental, it was another demonstration of the kitchen’s attention to the details and design of a dish.

The market fish, a plush mahi portion, was topped with a lump crabmeat salad. These mates of the surf toyed with the earthy flavors of spinach and parsnip accompaniments.

Vegetarians will find a seasonal vegetable plate along with a mushroom pate, salads and sides that are not afterthoughts to the menu but components that will build a pleasant meatless repast.

Amato is curing his own bacon; smoking chicken, ham and fish; pickling and preserving; and baking pita in house. That all of this is delivered from a kitchen the size of a closet demonstrates the skills he fine-tuned managing his food truck the Foodie Truck.

His Bolognese sauce is amped with chicken livers for a little Emilia-Romagna umami and the classic French butcher’s steak is served with “WooWoo sauce,” an amalgamation of Worcestershire, A-1 and barbecue sauces lengthened into a thin wash of flavor.

Chicken livers were wrapped in bacon and featured on the charcuterie plate as well as enhancing the ragu.

The cafe offers little dining “microclimates” for all the neighborhoods’ needs, including children and four-legged family members, with counter service, a slip of a bar, booths, tables and banquettes.

For Fallert, McLaughlin and Amato, The Park Cafe has insulated itself into the fabric of the community of Wagener Terrace, Hampton Park and North Central.

The alchemy of a home away from home, called “neighborhoody” by the trendsters, is blooming at The Park Cafe.