Wookiee Hut Cuisine presents:
David Burke & Donatella
New York, NY
Review by Diana, SuSu, MaceVindaloo, ScarletManuka, PapaSan, Walrus

We loved Park Avenue Café in its heyday and were distressed to hear Chef David Burke had left the Stillman group after many years of restaurant development in New York, DC, and Las Vegas. But though we loved the thought of having him back on the New York restaurant scene, we were concerned that he's paired up with a former lawyer-turned pastry cook, Donatella Arpia. Not that there's that much to be too concerned about, because it looks like she does no cooking here; she seems to be limited to front of the house duties only.

The tony, ritzy address is a concern, too — you know, it's accessible to the "ladies who lunch" crowd, which is a term used to describe otherwise useless denizens of society who are to be seen, as opposed to respected for their tastes. Plastic surgery and careful intake controls the shapes and sizes of these dames (pronounced in the French manner, thank you), and their expense accounts seem bottomless.

Not exactly our budget or social range, but there was a special event and it seemed justified to visit this old family friend. David Burke's star had been rising in the public eye, and clearly he's respected among his brethren. Best to check up on the lad, eh?

We had read reviews stating that a new snobbery reflecting Burke's celebrity was prevalent. One person complained that he was not allowed to be seated because he was wearing bluejeans; when he pointed out others in the dining room also clad in jeans, he was purportedly told, "Friends of Mr. Burke may wear jeans." Wha????

There is a dress code, but it's somewhat relaxed, relatively speaking for a place of such caliber. Jeans are reportedly not allowed, but there is a strategy to this. One of us wore a hoodie with his jeans and sauntered through without trouble. Then the maitre d' came up to him quietly and asked if, "Could I take your sweatshirt, please? And may I lend you a collared shirt?" He later explained that the restaurant understands the "new casual," but standards were important to customers who had managed to garner reservations, and he apologized, but the hoodie was not the type of experience they wished to have. The inference was that they were willing to kick out one person to keep 100 others "comfortable," which is reasonable, really. Fortunately, the grungy one in our group actually was wearing a collared shirt under his rep hoodie, so crisis averted. (It's true that some restaurants will not allow you to dine if you do not meet their dress code criteria, and jeans wearers are often turned away.) As long as you're hip and inoffensive, you can probably get away with it.

Burke's decorating style at his previous restaurants were quirky, expensive, collectors-Americana — things like 100 year old replicas of the Boston cod, sheaves of beribboned carved wooden sculptures of wheat stalks, that sort of thing. This place looks like a very expensive boudoir, and we immediately blamed Donatella. Colors are described as "lipstick," for crying out loud! There were oversized flower arrangements, the kind you find in museum foyers or hotel lobbies. The designer was apparently inspired by art deco and geometric elements in the wall screens and carpets; it seemed also to have splashes of "Moorish architecture" about it. The seating was plush and expensive looking, and there was not much space between the tables, despite the big chairs. But otherwise, the 'bones' of the place seemed preserved and you kind of felt like you were in someone's home. You had to step up or down to get into the bar or dining room. It was odd, because we felt pretty sure that this was not the intent.

There were balloons decorating the walls, but they were blown out of glass, which means the "installation" is permanent and maybe meant to be art. It was actually kind of kitschy.

Most of us opted for the tasting menu, simply because we are greedy and wanted to try as many things as possible. The menu is not huge, and features daily fresh specials. Even so, we couldn't coordinate ourselves to try each other's fare, and in these pricey places, portions can be a bit small. So who knew if sharing was even possible?

Burke's culinary style is definitely masculine, despite the outrageous platings and over-the-top decorating. Flavors tend to be salt-smacked and strong, and there is a lot of fat involved, mostly in the form of butter. It's the zenith of "going out" — special stuff you couldn't make at home, nor could you get anywhere else.

To start was a falafel ball in a tahini-scented aioli (a garlic mayonnaise), served on a specially designed red lacquer plate. There was a well for a little dollop of mayo and one perfect fried chickpea ball was set on it. The fork for this course was placed tines up in its own slot — no doubts regarding which fork to use. For some, it's way fussy, but for us, it was pretty and one falafel can be something one overindulges in — they can be very very filling. One falafel left us wanting more.

But next, the rosemary popover bread came in its own little skillet, with a fresh sprig of fragrant rosemary. It's very vibrant tasting, yet comforting in its yeasty, bready way. Reminiscent of Burke's other Stillman group restaurant Maloney & Porcelli, a steakhouse on 50th Street, for the new-financial-market types. The crust was perfect and brown and shiny, and it tasted like rosemary and salt in perfect balance.

The butter for the bread was scraped off the butter block into a continuous shard sheet and formed vertically into a futuristic rose, maybe ... and the nice shards melted fast on the warm bread. So much nicer than those weird flavored butters in pretentious establishments.

Then started a signature David Burke treatment of a savory flan made of turnip puré and topped with pan-cooked chunks of fois gras. This is hands-down one of our favorite things he pioneered, and we can never get enough. We figure that these smaller portions cooked into the shell of a chicken egg, limits the damage to both body, purse, and soul ... to have more would cause us to commit crimes to get even more! Or maybe just fall down dead, but in blissed out bliss!

One of us opted not to have the tasting menu, and this was allowed at DB&D; other establishments require the whole table to have the tasting menu in order to imbibe. Park Ave Café does this, but it seems at this new place, Burke indulges those who feel they have to make their own statement, or something. But honestly, the Lobster Bisque with lobster roll in a sort of filo pastry, but firmer — it was really spectacular, and we'd go off the tasting menu just for this one dish. Unlike the tasting menu items, it was rather large and would make a really nice supper dish on its own ... but some of us desperately wanted to add this big soup onto the tasting menu, too!

For the tasting menu tasters, the next two courses were reminiscent of breakfast: A fried quail egg on a crab cake over a basalmic based sauce, reminiscent of a eggs benedict, perhaps. Then there was a well seared and very large sea scallop served with fried, salty straw potatoes. The potatoes were all crunch, and it was rather easier to eat it with a large spoon, and it had the texture of a great breakfast cereal! It was a fun surprise.

The à la carter among us next got a veal shank, roasted and braised, and served with white asparagus, while the rest of us got lamb medallions, and we also got Burke's really exquisite mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, and braised mushrooms to accompany. His side dishes are really very special and we can never pass up his efforts, no matter where he's cooking. His roasted meats can be a bit overcooked, but always tender, which makes us think that maybe we didn't understand the "concept" — and in fact, this is supposed to be a very French style dish. He is formally trained at the Culinary Institute of American, which would have grounded him in the good basics.

With coffee came a pitcher of cream for each diner, and then the parade of desserts came: a flourless chocolate cake served with cinnamon ice cream; petits fours served with a mini-stove, a trio of sorbets: raspberry, pear, and mango; pannecotta, a gelatin-stabilized flan-type dish, served in a martini glass with swirled of chocolate; a classic apple tarte in the style of a tatin, served with vanilla bean ice cream and a dried apple slice; and a slab of tiramisu between two very thin, frangible sheets of chocolate. It was all too much ... but we sat and finished nearly all of it!

The desserts are a mix of specials and favorites, and they are meant to overwhelm you. They did, and they made us want to try the cheesecake lollipop tree, Burke's newest classic — balls of cheesecake are speared onto sticks, dipped in appropriate coatings, and placed in a stand and trimmed with mint leaves for a bushy, fun presentation. We saw many of they go by as we enjoyed the food.

The other new classic we would have liked to try was sashimi fish and beef served on a pink slabs of Himalayan salt. You might have seen Burke feature this on his Iron Chef or Roker on the Road appearances. He also heats the stones and uses them as griddles and containers for stews.

Burke is a friendly man, and we have to admit, we were dining with people who knew him and whom he loved. So he came over to say hello, tell us about his family changes, how well his son is doing, a breakfast he was cooking the next morning ... he's gossipy, friendly, fun — basically, the same wonderful guy we'd met years and years ago with these same people.

The service was actually wonderful, in that plates were cleared properly and with minimal fuss. The waiters and runners moved briskly through this tightly packed space; once you were seated, there was enough room, but moving to the table or to the bathrooms required some squeezing and excusing, a bit like a movie theater in spacing. A few of the waiters chatted in the corners, which was annoying — were these people not trained properly? Actually, we'd read that there is a real shortage of professional waitstaff in the city, what with all the swanky restaurants opening. It's not uncommon to hear about poaching staff by newer restaurants in the city, and even as far as Philadelphia. Obviously, at this level, being a waiter is a serious lifetime profession.

Another whimsical and very practical touch: the "Smoking Room." Like many cities, smoking in eateries and taverns and bars, etc. and in fact in many buildings, is strictly not allowed. For these establishments, many feared the deathnell, as smokers are lingerers and big tippers compared to those who don't smoke. So what is a place like DB&D to do? Provide a smoking room which is not actually indoors.

We've all seen images of people outside office buildings on a cigarette break; this might be okay in warmer weather, but what to do in colder weather besides shiver and huddle in the doorway? Burke cleverly hired a white stretch limousine and parks it right outside the door. The "driver" is a bartender and serves drinks to those who come to the "smoking room" to imbibe in one of those "offensive" devices which nonetheless brings great pleasure to those who enjoy smoking. In fact, when we went by on this chilly night, the denizens within the well-lit "non-room" did in fact appear very happy. Burke's smoking limo does not drive anywhere; it just sits there to augment the restaurant space. It makes its appearance sometime before Thanksgiving and stays there till just before Easter. Genius!

But, despite our fears about the decor and surroundings, David Burke turned out to still be himself, and that made us very, very happy. The food was boldly flavored as always, something that many of us have accepted as part of Burke's artism. Think of it this way — it's affordable art. Like the paintings of someone like Jackson Pollack, you many not understand it or even agree with it, but he's a genius, that's for sure. And were were very pleased that David Burke is still the same whimsical wunderkind, no matter how much experience is behind him, and no matter who else's name is on the storefront!

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