Park & Orchard is a Bergen iconoclast. For 25 years, this big, bold restaurant has been a study in contrasts; the food – and the vibe – are serious and fun, edgy and comforting, in equal measure. The seriousness is evidenced by the dozens of framed accolades that cover the walls of the area just inside the entryway, praising both chef-owner Buddy Gebhardt's flavorful cuisine and the restaurant's award-winning wine list. Beyond the bar that bisects the cavernous space, the two dining rooms buzz with energy. Walls painted in deep earth tones of sage and plum punctuated with sections of glass block; huge, flying saucer-shaped light fixtures; and a black and white checkerboard floor lend the rooms contemporary warmth.
In its size and breadth, Gebhardt's menu echoes the restaurant's physique. From smoked fish to hummus, duck stir-fry to gumbo, there are a dizzying number of choices and variations. Vegetarians will find an entire section devoted to them, but alongside the tofu and tahini, there are Black Angus beef, pork chops and "Mary’s Sunday tomato sauce with meatballs."
We chose some of the chef's signature starters – chilled crab claws, cutely called "fingers," with a zesty remoulade, and luscious pastrami-style smoked salmon with dilled sour cream. Dumplings stuffed with barbecued pork were perfectly complemented by a rich peanut sauce.
Gebhardt's New Orleans crawfish pasta is quite possibly his best-known entr�e, and for good reason. He melds a generous portion of the seafood with tomatoes, cream and Cajun spices for a dish that is luxurious and satisfying. The charmingly named "ants on a tree" features slender Chinese noodles, ground chicken and scallions in a gingery sauce that packs a bit of heat. If you are sensitive to spice, it would be wise to heed the menu warnings on quite a few of Gephardt's preparations. His gumbo – packed with chunks of chicken and swordfish, crawfish and chicken andouille sausage – is highly seasoned and intense, with complex layers of smoky flavor.
After all that spice, well-matched by a California zinfandel selected from the tome Park & Orchard's owners refer to as their wine "bible," we were eager for desserts that were light and cool. Authentic renditions of Key lime pie and tiramisu were sweetly soothing, but the dessert menu also includes plenty of chocolate choices, as well as desserts sweetened with honey or maple syrup instead of sugar.
As befits the restaurant's exuberant spirit, service is casual and friendly, but professionally efficient. Dirty plates are whisked away, tables are crumbed before dessert, and no one asks "who gets the …?" when food is delivered. The knowledgeable yet down-to-earth staff is evidence of another Park & Orchard contrast – that while this is indeed a serious restaurant, it is also run by people who know how to have a good time, and want to make sure you do too.