An Evening in the Park

F or Jason Sobocinski, 2011 was a great year for babies. In August, he and wife Kelly welcomed son Tavin into the world – he’s ridiculously adorable – but there were figurative babies, too. It was the year that saw the publishing of Sobocinski’s first tome, The Caseus Fromagerie & Bistro Cookbook, inspired by his popular New Haven restaurant and cheese shop of the same name. He also gained national attention for The Big Cheese, a program on the Cooking Channel centered on Jason’s adventures in cheese land. Finally, it was the year that he and his brother, Tom, expanded beyond their intimate flagship restaurant and took over operations at Park Central Tavern in Hamden.

Park Central, affectionately known as PCT, is a spacious, well-appointed eatery on Whitney Avenue with a Tudor look outside and a clubby, tavern-esque interior. The Sobocinski brothers came on board in October and installed the talented Chef Erin Hunt in PCT’s kitchen – and that’s where the most exciting changes are taking place.

Chef Hunt has a sterling reputation, earned both at the Culinary Institute of America and during stints cooking at such eateries as Cafe Routier and the Ritz

Park Central Tavern
1640 Whitney Avenue, Hamden, CT (map)
Mon-Thurs 11:30am-12pm; Fri-Sat 11:30am-1am; Sundays 10am-11pm
203-287-8887 | $$$ 

Carlton. A local fellow, his early influences included Jacques Pepin, a neighbor of his parents. Most recently, Hunt cooked at Barcelona in New Haven, known for hyper-local and super-fresh Spanish cuisine. On a recent winter’s evening our party of three sat snugly in at a high-top table in PCT’s welcoming lounge area. There, we perused the restaurant’s nice-looking menu, which features many small and smallish dishes, including raw bar offerings, salads, sandwiches, burgers, soups and appetizers in addition to full-on entrees. (Fair warning: vegans and vegetarians will have to get creative.) We also took in a short-form Tavern Menu, available all day and night, with easy-eating favorites like calamari, hot wings, and cheeseburgers, as well as less-expected fare such as fried oysters, truffle fries and the Caseus Cheese Board.

Much to our delight, Chef Hunt started landing surprise dishes at our table, each a marvel of intense, magnified flavors. Can

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you imagine seared foie gras on a slim, buttery circle of brioche French toast, topped with home-made ginger ice cream? It was a special that night, and I heartily recommend it. Other stand-outs were fresh-shucked Canadian oysters topped with refreshing cucumber coulis… a steak tartare appetizer, presented with watercress, cornichons and home made potato chips (which I intend to order again and again)… and a salad of frisee, hazelnut, poached egg and bacon lardons. Lobster rolls have been a staple on the PCT menu for years, but the new talent has elevated these buttery beauties by adding a superior roll made by Whole G, a New Haven bakery that also produces PCT’S gorgeous dinner rolls. Instead of fries, we ordered ours with braised Brussels sprouts, which is another nice touch: you can choose sides.

For those who are wondering, Park Central Tavern is not Mini-Caseus (or maxi-Caseus, if we’re talking size). “It’s a different niche,” says the affable Jason. “Certainly a crossover, but not the same.” With 160 seats, including 60 in the private party area, Jason and company are treating PCT like one big rumpus room. There’s live jazz offered on Saturday nights, and the function room has already been the site of fundraisers, community pancake breakfasts, a comedy showcase and a singles night for women only.

“We’re creating a culture here,” says Jason. “We want to sustain the community, and to make this place a neighborhood joint.” One can spend many delicious hours at Park Central Tavern, including visits for Sunday brunch – when bloodies and mimosas are complimentary. And here’s a pocketbook-friendly touch: Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights, bottles of wine are half-price.

Written by Todd Lyon. Photographed by Hayward Gatling.

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Todd Lyon has been covering the New Haven dining scene for 20-plus years. She has authored, co-authored or ghost written 17 books on subjects as diverse as business, wedding gowns and kissing; currently she co-owns Fashionista Vintage and Variety, a clothing store for eccentrics.

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