Monthly Archives: September 2008

Play With Your Food: davidburke & donatella

The graphic on the menu is a good representation of the kind of food here.

I had first seen Chef David Burke’s food on Eat Out New York, hosted by the insanely gorgeous Kelly Choi.  I was intrigued. I had never seen such whimsical culinary preparations and presentations.  So I made reservations for lunch with visiting K-Dubs in tow.

I was surprised as the menus landed on the table with a thud; I definitely expected more polish from such a posh restaurant, especially from the manager/ floor captain, who had flung the menus at us. I looked at K-Dubs and we both did a WTF, jerking our heads back and furrowing our eyebrows. The slightly older-than-middle-aged Asian floor captain came back to take our order. He seemed impatient. He acknowledged our orders with staccato bursts of accented English. As he left I couldn’t help but think to myself that he was more suited for the Congee Village than this restaurant on the Upper East Side.

Fried Wontons!

But a cute little amuse-bouche of short-rib dumpling (like a fried wonton!) quickly sweetened our disposition towards the surprising service of Mr. Congee Village.

So good and so cute.

Then the bread came.

A warm, fragrant brioche served in a miniature copper pot. A rosemary sprig gave the bread, which was crunchy on the outside and pillowy soft on the inside, an irresistibly desirable perfume. It was the fragrance of deliciousness.

A sculpture made of butter.

And then there was the butter.

It was a beautiful sculpture mounted on a pink crystalline pedestal. The butter looked so delicate. I felt guilty for putting my knife through such artistically wrought food. I would have been content with a meal of just that butter and brioche.

Look Ma no plates!

I ordered the tuna and salmon tartares, which is probably the most clichéd dish in western cuisine. But the restaurant’s rendition of this dish was a spectacle to behold, drama on a plate. A tower of fresh tuna, salmon and crème fraiche sat upon a slab that looked like pink marble. We later found out that it was Pink Himalayan salt. There were gorgeously cut potato chips behind and on top of the tower. A long chive, with its end artfully frayed was perched on the chip. A trio of sauces; miso vinaigrette, curry mayo and chili oil, rested in specially made indentations around the tower. A line of crisp toast completed the dramatic dish. It tasted as good as it looked with the condiments providing three different dimensions to the dish.

Pretzel Crusted Crab Cake with Confit Orange and Poppy Seed Honey.

We were both surprised by the rectangular shaped crab cake covered with Japanese Pretz pretzel sticks. I took a sliver of K-Dubs’ appetizer and liked how there weren’t any breadcrumbs in the crabmeat. I wanted to taste more, but I didn’t want to deprive K-Dubs of a dish he was clearly enjoying.

The waiter asked if we would like more bread. Well if they insist, I’m not going to resist.

The service, with the exception of the menu-flinging Mr. Congee Village was impeccable thus far. They were attentive without being intrusive, polite and polished.

Lobster “Steak” Curried Shoestring Potatoes, Black Honey & Citrus-Fennel Candy.

Our waiter brought out the mains and my Lobster “Steak” got quite a few stares because of the sheer size of the mountain of shoestring potatoes. It was, to quote Billy Fuccillo, “HUUUUGEAA.” The “steak” mimicked a piece of filet mignon in terms of appearance. And it tasted… well steak-y too. There was a patina of caramelized meat on the top which gave it a meaty flavor. The large chunks of lobster meat were succulently firm, but not in an overcooked lobster way. I was wondering what the filler was in the steak because it wasn’t starchy. It turned out to be lobster mousse (read about it here.) I was very impressed with this dish. Not only was the lobster presented in a novel way, but was made to taste different.

Pan-Fried Turbot with Cauliflower Puree and Truffles. 

K-Dubs ordered the Turbot, which was a special that day. I didn’t taste it but he said that it was perfectly cooked, with a crisp exterior and moist interior.

Cheesecake Lollipops with a side of foliage.

Now if the lobster “steak” turned heads, David Burke’s Cheesecake Lollipop Tree caused a pile-up. Everyone looked when the striking dessert appeared. It was whimsically cute, majestically tall and it had leaves. It was accompanied by a quenelle of bubblegum whipped cream. Mr. Congee Village showed up and plucked a lollipop from its branch, swirled it in the whipped cream and with a flourish, declared, “David Burke’s Cheesecake Lollipop.” He beamed, shoving the lollipop in my face. I took it and thanked him. He was proud of the food, and I liked that, even though his motor skills or depth perception was a little off. I was surprised with the whipped cream. Usually I detest anything that taste like bubblegum that isn’t gum. It’s usually cloyingly sweet and artificial. But this was creamy with just a hint of bubble gum. It went well with the lollipops, which tasted exactly like its namesake.

Vanilla Crème Brulee

K-Dubs had the Crème Brulee, which was well, a… Crème Brulee, there was nothing outstanding it its presentation. But it was expertly made. The sugar crust was crisp and thin, the custard silky smooth.

I thoroughly enjoyed the lunch. The food was well executed, but I was most impressed and I have to admit charmed, by the Wonka-esque imagination of the kitchen. They brought out familiar ingredients in fun and usual preparations. They have succeeded in doing what avant-garde chefs aim to do, but without all the chemicals.

I would have liked to return to the restaurant. One, to try the other dishes on the menu which looked to be equally as innovative as my “steak,” but two, because it was almost too perfect. I wanted to see if they could consistently turn out that kind of food that had so blown me away that day. Sadly I never got the chance as I was leaving in less than two weeks.

As we were paying, Mr. Congee Village stopped by to chat. (I should really stop calling him that, but it’s ok because I’m Asian too.) I don’t know if it was because of the excellent meal, but as I left, I commented to K-Dubs that I actually liked Mr. Congee. He concurred.


davidburke & donatella 

(Although it might just be davidburke in the near future as Donatella Arpaia and David Burke have parted ways as reported by Eater here.)

133 East 61st Street (Between Park and Lexington Avenues)

New York, NY 10065

(212) 813-2121

Lunch is served from 11:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday. Bunch is served from 12 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Saturday and from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Sunday. Dinner is served from 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday and from 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Sunday. 

Price Range

Appetizers from $14 to $24. Mains from $28 to $44, with sides at $8 each or three from $18. Desserts from $10 to $18. 

Lunch Prix Fixe: Two courses for $29 and $34. Although when I was there a year ago they had a three-course prix fixe for $49. 

Dress Code

It’s in the Upper East Side, dress up or you might feel out of place. 

Summer’s End: Charles’ Southern Style Kitchen and The Cloisters

The Cloisters

Slightly more than a year ago, the sun was warmly shining yet the air was cool and crisp. It was one of those magnificently perfect, but rare days, when summer turns to fall. I was standing, admiring the view of the Hudson with two of my closest friends. I inhaled and took it all in. I was leaving New York, but I didn’t dwell on it. That day, up in the serenely beautiful and otherworldly Cloisters, after a good lunch with great friends, I was happy and content in the moment.

Four hours prior: 

“Someone’s coming,” I said excitedly as I peered through the glass. Jenny, K-Dubs and I were loitering outside Charles’ Southern Style Kitchen in Harlem, as it was getting ready to open for lunch.  It was my last month in New York and I had a list of places I wanted to eat at before I left. The famous fried chicken here was on it.

Satisfying food at Charles’

As we stepped in, I was surprised by how small the place was. A really nice lady brought out plates, and asked if we would like sweet ice tea or lemonade. I asked for a mix of the two. She then told us to help ourselves to the food, which was served buffet style. The much-hyped fried chicken was good, but I wasn’t blown away by it. The chicken was tasty and had crisp skin. But when I had a breast piece, it was slightly dry, the thigh pieces though were moist and tender. I liked the collard greens, oxtail and ribs, but my favorite was the turkey wings with gravy. I loved the gelatinous texture of the skin and the succulent meat. Mmmm Mmmmh Mmmmph! I think I went back three or four times, my plate piled high with every pass. 

The food isn’t great, it’s good. But what you get is a variety of satisfying food for an amazingly cheap price. Would I schlep all the way up there for a meal again? I don’t know, but since we were all the way up here, we also planned our trip to include The Cloisters. 

Charles’ + The Cloisters = Worth it.

With our bellies full, we embarked on a little adventure to get to The Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park. It wasn’t as difficult as I expected, even with the non-functioning subway that day. However I was surprised that admission was twice the price of a meal at Charles’. It was worth it though; I was very taken with the dramatic medieval charm and architectural beauty of the place. Besides the art, and magnificent view, for foodies there are gardens with lots of fresh herbs. It was quite educational looking and smelling the whole plant as opposed to the dried, chopped up stuff I commonly use. 

It was a little bittersweet, discovering all the great new places in New York just as I was going to leave. But it also made my last days there incredibly memorable. 

I leave you with some photos, memories of a wonderful day.

Now where are the Kah-ni-gits?

Jenny and I.

You almost feel like you’re not in New York, or even in the United States.

K-Dubs is tall.

The view.

Syracuse, Sydney, Boston, New York, perhaps Singapore in the near future.

One of the courtyard gardens. They have a variety of herbs.

Charles’ Southern Style Kitchen

2841 Eighth Ave. (Between 151st and 152sts.)

New York, NY 10039

(212) 926-4313

Call for hours, an all-you-can-eat meal costs around $10, Sorry I can’t remember.

The Cloisters: Information here

My Toys: Equipping the Kitchen for Newlyweds (or Anyone with a New Kitchen)

Mr and Mrs Virani

My friends Aarti and Raj recently got a married and I sadly couldn’t attend their wedding, being half a world away in Singapore. But I wanted to give them something useful, something that they could use as opposed to the chafing-dish, that once unwrapped would be stored away and taken out perhaps once, 14 years later. And since Aarti and Raj just bought an apartment in Hoboken, I thought a post on how to equip a kitchen would be useful. I’ve equipped four kitchens as I moved around and sometimes I have stuff that I never use.  Hopefully this will help you avoid that. To Aarti and Raj: congratulations, this post is dedicated to you, may you have many wonderful meals and memories in your kitchen.

But first a paragraph on where to shop

The best place to buy kitchen equipment is at restaurant supply stores (not to be confused with boutique kitchen stores aimed at deep-pocketed home cooks.) The stuff there is cheap (probably the cheapest) and is what most restaurant kitchens use. If you live in NYC they are located near Chinatown on Bowery, if you live in Singapore they are located in Chinatown on Temple St. I’ve also been surprised at the stuff I got from Target. I virtually stocked my first apartment’s kitchen on 849 Ackerman Avenue in Syracuse from this amazing store. The kitchen gear that they stock like the T-Fal and OXO brands are a step up from the no frills restaurant supply stores, but they are still cheap. I’m going to admit it, I heart “Tarr-jay.” Finally if you have a lot of cash, Williams-Sonoma has some of the very best brands that you can pay for, and you will pay dearly for them. I usually buy select items from this place; usually it’s something vital that I need the very best of, like a knife for example.

Knives, Cutting Boards and Steels

My Shun, Kyocera ceramic knife and honing steel 

First off, don’t think about your knives as an individual entity. It is part of a system that comprises the cutting board and honing steel.  A knife needs a proper surface to cut on so that it won’t wear out its edge, and it needs to be maintained so that the edge is always aligned and therefore sharp. Hit this trifecta and you’ll be blessed with a knife that effortlessly sings through whatever you are cutting and last that way. There is nothing as culinarily orgasmic as a sharp knife. Well maybe that and a great non-stick pan.

Don’t buy a knife set; it’s a waste of money. There are probably some knives in there that you will never use. All you really need is a chef’s and paring knife. Get the longest chef’s knife that you can comfortable wield and that your cutting board can accommodate, preferably in the eight to ten inch range. Having a long knife means you don’t have to raise you hand as high when you prep food, and therefore is less fatiguing.

Like cars, there are two countries that dominate knife production; Germany and Japan.  The German J.A. Henckels and Wüsthof brands have dominated the knife market for a long time but now Japanese knives like Global and Shun are becoming very popular. I have a Shun Santoku that was given by K-Dubs when he visited me in New York and I love that knife. It’s amazingly sharp and gorgeous with it’s swirly Damascus steel like pattern. My only complaint is that the blade is a bit short,  an extra inch or two would be great. But don’t we all wish for that. Shuns can be purchased at Williams-Sonoma.

I don’t do much precision cutting, so instead of a paring knife, which is usually three inches, I use a four and a quarter inch ceramic utility knife from Kyocera. The longer length makes it easier to peel and slice fruits and vegetables. I would recommend Kyocera’s ceramic knives for work on soft material because you can preserve its razor sharp edge longer. (You can’t hone or sharpen these knives yourself. You have to send them back to Kyocera and they will sharpen it for free.) I’ve been using mine for almost a year now and it’s still wonderfully sharp. They are supposedly ten times harder than normal steel and their edges don’t roll. But be careful because these knives are extremely brittle. I dropped mine from a grand height of one and a half inches and there were little chips on the edge.

The type of cutting board you choose is as important as your knife. Please DON’T EVER get boards made of glass, marble or any type of ceramic. They will damage and dull the edges of your knives. I like the feel of cutting on wooden boards but I prefer the convenience of plastic.

For wooden boards, end-grain is the most forgiving to your knife’s edge, not surprisingly it is also the most expensive. Edge-grain boards are a good compromise between price and performance. Flat-grain boards are the cheapest and least forgiving on your knives.

I like plastic boards because they are easy to wash and dry. Try not to get a plastic board that is too hard. Give the board a hard tap, the duller the thud, the softer the board.

Whichever type of board you get, make sure you get the biggest board your sink and counter can accommodate. I like a big board for cutting meats on and two other medium size boards to cut vegetables and fruit. The medium size boards are easier to heft around and clean, but they still give me enough room to work with. Small boards are useless. I damaged my prized shun because I was cutting on a small board and it was cluttered with stuff, one of which was another metal implement obscured by peels, and my heart almost broke when the edge of my Shun bit into it and got nicked. Lesson learnt, work clean and get a bigger board.

The last part of keeping a knife sharp is maintenance. It is important to hone your knife with a steel often to prolong the life of its edge. Honing is not to be confused with sharpening, which creates a new edge. Honing only realigns your existing edge, it straightens the edge that would have rolled to one side or the other through everyday wear.

You should get a steel that is two inches longer than your longest knife.

Pots and Pans

Pots at a restaurant supply store

You really only need two pots and two pans. First a large stockpot that is big enough to be a braising vessel and to boil pasta. Then a medium one used for your other cooking needs. These don’t have to be expensive. Just make sure they don’t have too thin of a base. I prefer aluminum to stainless steel.  Look for these at restaurant supply stores.

T-Fal pans. Image from

I love using a good non-stick pan. But you don’t have to spend a great deal of money to get one. T-Fal makes great non-stick pans that are affordable. I like a medium and large pan, but anything bigger than 12 inches will start to get unwieldy. The trick with non-stick pans is to be gentle with them. I’m usually a very relaxed guy, but I don’t let anyone touch my pans unless they have demonstrated that they know how to handle non-sticks. That means no metal implements in it and no washing with any abrasive elements. T-Fal pans are available at Target

I’ve been lusting over Calphalon One’s hard-anodized-aluminum pans for quite some time now. I’ve never used them but they seem to have everything I want in a pan; a non-stick, durable surface that is oven safe. Unfortunately it weights in at just under $90 for an eight-inch fry pan. Williams-Sonoma stocks Calphalon One pans. Target also has a line called Kitchen Essentials by Calphalon, they have the same hard-anodized-aluminum surface at a fraction of the price.

Also if you make a lot of sauces, you might want to invest in a small heavy bottomed saucepan. The heavy bottom ensures even heating which is important for delicate sauces. Look out for them at kitchen supply stores.

If you do a lot of braising, you might also want to get a nice enameled cast-iron Dutch oven. Oval shaped ones are more practical as they can cook large (long) cuts of meat. (Aarti you can skip this since you’re vegetarian, and so I guess that makes Raj vegetarian too…) French maker Le Creuset makes particularly fine ones. Available at Williams-Sonoma.

You might also want to get a large cast-iron skillet. They will eventually become non-stick after seasoning and are extremely durable. It’s oven safe and cheap. However they are extremely heavy and high maintenance. Look for the Lodge brand, available at Williams-Sonoma.

I would recommend getting your pots and pans separately, that way you can pick and choose the best vessel for specific cooking purposes. However if you are on a budget, I would get a set from T-Fal, they are cheap, and usually around the $70 mark and you will have all the pots and pans you need.

Other Kitchen Essentials

Measuring Spoons

Get a range from ½ a teaspoon to one cup. Best place to buy: Restaurant supply stores.

Measuring Cup

OXO measuring cup. Image from 

I love the angled measuring cups from OXO. You don’t have to look at it from eye-level to make accurate measurements. Truly innovative and practical, I really recommend these babies. Available at Target.


KitchenAid Pasta Scoop Colander, Image from 

Most strainers perform the same regardless of design or brand. The difference only becomes apparent during clean up. Mesh style strainers are hard to clean as food and starchy water from pasta traps easily in the tiny perforations. Instead look for medium size holes like the one above. The bowl shape also makes for easy wipe down.


This is the tool that will probably come into most contact with your pots and pans. Choosing the right one is essential. I would recommend a stiff non-metallic material that is heat resistant. Thermoplastic nylon is good. A medium sized angled head is best. Avoid wide heads, which can be difficult to use in small pans and narrow heads, which are pretty much useless. My spatula also came with a rest on the handle opposite of the head. It allowed me to put my spatula down on the counter without dirtying it. A really neat feature. Best to look for them at Target. That’s where I got mine. It was a Rubbermaid or an OXO.


This is probably the most used item in my kitchen. If you can, get tongs without the jaggered teeth (the semi-wavy flatheads are ideal) so that they don’t ruin fragile items.  Also try to look for non-metallic ones if you use them in a non-stick pan. Some people prefer a stiff spring, but I prefer one that doesn’t have much tension because it leads to less hand fatigue. Restaurant supply stores are probably the cheapest, although Target might surprise you.

Can opener

Spend an extra one or two bucks for a sturdy and comfortable can opener, preferably one with rubberized handles. Best bet is to look for them at Target.


Gourmet Series Microplane. Image from 

These graters which evolved from woodworking tools are great to use. I have a zester/grater from their classic series and I love it, definitely easier than an old fashion box grater. I was taking a cooking master class and the kitchen came equipped with Microplane’s new line that featured a broader surface. It functioned a lot better than my classic one because I had more surface area to work on. Their Gourmet Series even comes with a non-slip rubber foot to anchor it down on the worktable. Look for them at restaurant supply stores. 

A Word On Dining Ware

A plate is like a canvas for your food. You want it to be blank.

So now that you’ve got all that snazzy kitchen gear, it’s time to think about how you serve your food. I like to use plain white plates. A plate is like a canvas for your food. You want it to be blank. Restaurant supply stores usually stock plain vanilla white dining ware. Get an assortment of shapes if you want some variety. They are also incredibly cheap.

I hope all this is helpful.

By the way, check out Aarti’s eloquent writing on choosing a caterer for her wedding. Here:

Also would love to hear about what other gear you guys can’t live without.