| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:09

    Only in New York could you find a destination restaurant in the community house of a church. And only, for that matter, on Park Avenue. St. Bartholomew"s Episcopal Church has long played host to Midtown"s bankers and lawyers at CafÃ&Copy; St. Bart"s, a casual eatery that served lunch and cocktails seasonally on the church"s terrace that faces Park Avenue. Service continued indoors in a great hall space throughout the colder months, but it went largely unnoticed. Now, there is a larger ambition for the space, and it yields an impressive result: Inside Park, a new full-service restaurant that opened in September, following a year-and-a-half of rethinking, renovation and restoration. That this task has been entrusted to Sodexo, a restaurant management company better known for its work in school lunchrooms and corporate cafeterias than the fine dining sphere, should not be a cause for alarm. The cornerstone of the project is new executive chef Matthew Weingarten, previously chef de cuisine at Savoy and a longtime proponent of sustainable cooking practices. Sodexo also oversaw a soup-to-nuts renovation of the 90-year-old great hall, transforming it from a simple gathering space to an elegant dining room. Thirty-foot ceilings and stained glass windows are now accompanied by banquettes and a spacious bar, and original stencil-work covering the ceiling beams and walls has been breathtakingly restored. A state-of-the-art 2,000-square-foot kitchen replaced the cramped, makeshift facility previously used at CafÃ&Copy; St. Bart"s. And boy, does Weingarten know how to use it. â??The restaurant, from the aesthetic of interior to the edifice itself, is geared towards honoring an Old World sense of time and place, an Old World sense of cuisine, Weingarten said. â??The rule is that unless we can make it in house, I"m not interested in serving it. At Inside Park, that extends to curing, smoking, pickling and preserving produce and meats on a daily basis, and baking bread in-house. Weingarten even makes his own vinegar. â??We do all our butchering in house and try to buy as primal and as whole as possible, Weingarten said. â??We break down two to three pigs a week, sides of veal, whole lamb's as close to the source as I can get, that"s my goal. I find it important to hold on to that knowledge, which is starting to fade away in modern life. This labor-intensive approach to cooking explains Inside Park"s prices. Appetizers range from $10 to $16 and entrees from $24 to $32. You won"t see wagyu beef, Osetra caviar, truffles or other such stereotypes of decadent dining on the menu. In that sense, the restaurant sets itself apart from its peers in Midtown, tossing out heavy, overwrought cooking in favor of the kind of earnest, straightforward cuisine that"s a rarity among the neighborhood"s fine dining options. That"s not to say the menu at Inside Park is mundane. Weingarten makes ample use of unusual heirloom vegetables varieties, such as Chiogga beets, Grenada pepper, Delicata squash, bronze fennel and Fairytale eggplant. He takes the same approach to meat, favoring heritage breeds, such as Limousin veal, which he stuffs with a kidney and serves with chanterelle preserves and a potato puree for two ($62). Before progressing to appetizers and entrees, the menu begins with a selection of 12 tapas-sized â??simple plates, priced between $4.50 and $8. The simple plates are, as advertised, simple, and sometimes almost disappointingly so. But what individual offerings like the Surrey ham ($5.50), smoked black cod ($5) and yellowtail ($8) lack in complex composition, they make up for in pungency of flavor. Crispy, meaty frogs" legs ($6.50) were a favorite of mine, served over pickled fairytale eggplant (the dish is irresistibly named â??Frogs" Legs And Fairytales ). But for my money, I"d concentrate on the appetizers and entrees, where Weingarten"s cooking really shines. Soups are an oft-ignored appetizer, but the autumn squash and apple chowder ($12) was one of the best items on the menu. Savory, rustic and flavored with rosemary, it tasted like fall in liquid form. Spicy, smoked country sausage ($12), served with sweet heirloom apples and cabbage, was another standout among the starters. The entrees were generously portioned and more traditional than the smaller dishes, running the gamut of customary American proteins like chicken, ribeye steak and striped bass. The richest of the main courses that I tried was the single pasta dish on the menu, a large bowl of hand-cut pappardelle smothered in a hearty rabbit ragu ($24). If you"re in the mood for comfort food, this is the ideal option. The heritage breed pork chop ($28) was impossibly moist and almost massive enough for two, served alongside mushrooms and sweet Cippolini onions. It paired well with a side order of autumn root vegetables ($7), comprised rutabaga, parsnips and yellow carrots, dusted with sea salt, and tossed in a lemony herb Gremolata. The lack of pretension in these dishes is refreshing's when was the last time you saw a carrot on a fine dining menu?'s and they demonstrate how Inside Park emphasizes the quality of the flavors, rather than the novelty of their combinations. That ethos extends to desserts, a prime example of which is the apple strudel ($10), a dish for which pastry chef Miran Shim eschews store-bought phyllo in favor of making her own hand-stretched dough. Here, the focus is on superior craftsmanship, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel when it comes to the sweet stuff. The crowd is a bit older at Inside Park and clears out on the early side in the evening. Due to the high ceilings and ample spacing between tables, the atmosphere is several degrees calmer than most of us are used to, even in this neck of the woods. Those who favor more boisterous ambiance might see this as a downside, but one could argue that this is exactly why you come to a place like Inside Park: for a quiet dinner, thoughtfully planned, and artfully prepared.