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