The words "local" and "seasonal" get thrown around a lot these days. When a friend recommended Carlton Park in Prospect Heights, which freely uses those terms and more on its website, I was a bit skeptical. The menu looked good, sure, but it's hard to judge anything on those buzzwords anymore. And until 4 PM the restaurant runs a juice bar. How good could the food be at a juice bar? The answer, as it turns out, is pretty darned good.
I stand on the record as someone who doesn't enjoy raw tomatoes, but Heirloom Tomato Salad ($10) seemed like a good benchmark dish to determine just how seasonal the restaurant could be. I was surprised to see the chef carefully select two large, ripe heirlooms from a tray on the counter for my order; indeed, they're served at room temperature. These are tomatoes that have never been in a refrigerator. They come paired with creamy, cool burrata cheese and a jolt of heat from black pepper. This is a tomato dish even a raw tomato hater could love.
Truffle Pea Ravioli ($18) came swimming in a brown butter and lemon sauce, and topped with copious amounts of Parmigiano Reggiano. The deceptively simple filling of mashed green peas managed to assert itself nicely among the other ingredients. Lemon cuts the richness of the butter, with accents of truffle worked directly into the pasta dough.
The menu also offers a nice selection of vegetarian side dishes at $6 each. I decided on the sautéed greens, which in this case were tender young spinach leaves. They were cooked in a generous amount of oil and given a little bit of salt, and each leaf was only barely wilted, so that you could still taste how fresh they were.
Carlton Park has one wall made up of garage-style doors, a la Barbuto, so during the summer they open up and make every seat in the restaurant feel like it's outdoors. Although I was looking out onto noisy Flatbush Avenue, it was easy to feel transported once I started eating. The restaurant is a pleasurable reminder of what seasonal cooking can actually deliver. I, for one, will never think of a tomato the same way again.
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