David Burke Knows How
To Play With His Food
When I was very young, I played a practical joke on a friend who was a food snob, always carrying on about the great meals he’d had in France’s three-star restaurants (where, of course, I had never been). I bought a bag of those oily, dark brown rubber worms that fishermen use as bait, put them on croutons, and topped them with a dollop of sour cream, chopped chives and a squeeze of lemon juice. “These are anguillettes de terre-little earth eels,” I explained as I passed him a plateful. “I’m surprised you haven’t had them before. They’re a popular delicacy among farm laborers in the Southwest of France.” He ate them without flinching. Later, I told this story to my father’s cousin, who was a great cook, thinking she’d be amused. Instead, she became enraged. “Food isn’t funny!” she snapped.
I wonder what she would have made of David Burke. He’s the chef who introduced the swordfish chop at Park Avenue Cafe which he patented and served with a tag bearing the trademark symbol. At the River Café, he created salmon “pastrami” on rye-rye blini, that is, and sea scallops “Benedict” using quail eggs, potato pancakes and, instead of ham, sliced chorizo. At Maloney and Porcelli, he came up with a caveman-proportioned deep-fried “crackling pork shank” for the lawyers. Now, at David Burke and Donatella, his latest venture on the Upper East Side, the customers-dressed in designer sweaters and clunky jewelry-are dining on “Bronx-style” filet mignon of veal, “crisp and angry lobster cocktail,” and a cheesecake dessert he calls a lollipop tree.
Mr. Burke’s co-proprietor is Donatella Arpaia, a former lawyer who also owns Bellini. As hostess, Ms. Arpaia greets people at the entrance, where there’s a small, glossy white lounge with a long, stone-topped bar. When four of us arrived for dinner recently, we waited for 45 minutes in the lounge, which was packed to the rafters with people ordering Absolut vodka and Perrier. At last, clutching a round of drinks on the house, we were led away from the fray, down through a narrow white dining room lined with orange banquettes and into a large and comfortable Art Deco–style mirrored room done up in hues of dark chocolate, coral and scarlet, with a sculpture by Michael Ayoub made of thick red glass rods decorating the wall. With its high ceilings and well-spaced tables, it’s an elegant room, but for the flat light cast by the crystal chandelier, which gives it the air of a Soviet-bloc hotel.
A busboy brought us a round of Yorkshire puddings, puffed up in individual copper pans. Looks were deceiving; they turned out to be made of bread and were served with butter shaped into a tower and sprinkled with beads of coarse, red salt. We decided to try the “crisp and angry lobster cocktail,” since we were still feeling a bit crisp and angry ourselves after the long wait. The dish is served in the shell in topsy-turvy crimson chunks, stuck into one of those blocks of steel teeth used for holding Japanese flower arrangements. Though my friends have a rule never to eat lobster outside of Maine, since they live there a good deal of the time, they loved this dish. They also loved the lobster “flan,” which is made with Sauternes and tucked inside an eggshell, topped with tiny French fries and accompanied by a boned leg of quail stuffed with shittake mushrooms and wrapped in a sheet of pasta dough.
Mr. Burke’s barbecued squab is a masterpiece, served with a cakelike torte made with ginger snaps and corn that is a nice counterpoint to the rare, gamy meat. Roast chicken soaked in seawater is also superb (the brine making the flesh tender and juicy under a crisp skin), as are the mashed potatoes served alongside it. The rack of lamb comes with tomato couscous and a sweet-salty garnish of capers and candied lemon sauce. Ginger-rubbed salmon gets an Asian touch with vegetable wontons, octopus, Chinese sausage and XO sauce. Mr. Burke can’t resist having a bit of fun with a simple pasta dish such as cavatelli, tossed in an earthy wild mushroom sauce. He serves it in a rectangular bowl with a wide rim upon which sits a pile of slivered dried mushrooms that look like miniature wood chippings.
But some dishes are overwrought. A chef’s salad at lunch time seemed to have been made with anything they could find in the kitchen: bacon, walnuts, shrimp, chicken, greens and slivers of carrots that became a total mess on the plate as you plowed your way through it. There was also too much going on with the warm asparagus-which was prepared with bacon, chorizo, black olives and melted goat cheese-and it was much too salty.
James Distefano’s whimsical desserts include a wedge of terrific creamy coconut layer cake, with strawberry consommé and pineapple chiboust, that looks like a parody of a Duncan Hines box illustration. The dark and white chocolate and praline torte, decorated with a trio of homemade square marshmallows, is cloyingly sweet. On the other hand, the creamy butterscotch panna cotta-threaded with (believe it or not) curried cocoa gelée-is sensational. As for the cheesecake lollipop tree, it’s fun; balls of cheesecake rolled in different toppings are molded onto the end of cardboard sticks with David Burke’s name printed on them. The cheesecake is fine, but the bubblegum whipped cream they come with is truly awful. I don’t think even my friend who ate the rubber worms could manage this without flinching. But apart from that, I believe that my father’s cousin, were she still alive, would be won over by David Burke’s playful, funny food.