March 28, 2011 | BITE: My Journal
David Burke Plays Downtown

Of course, a David Burke wedge looks like a Carmen Miranda hat. Photo Steven Richter

Of course, a David Burke wedge looks like a Carmen Miranda hat. Photo Steven Richter

       David Burke’s expanding empire has its odd pockets - Bloomingdales, Burke-in-a-Box,  Rumson, N.J.  He’s anchored in Chicago, Las Vegas and in zip 10021 townhouse chic. Now the legendary kitchen jokester has brought his jars, his lollipop trees, mini iron stoves and a few new toys to his first downtown gig, David Burke’s Kitchen, in the James Hotel.  Just in case, he’s conjured up new show biz tricks, like the mad scientist percolator on a stagefront service table, in the middle of the long tunnel-room, where he reduces lobster stock that’s just spilled and caught fire. Quickly, it’s out. Hey, we almost got that photo. Now he’s wiping up the spill.  Now he’s smashing prawn heads. Now he’s schmoozing the room.

Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble for chef Burke’s lobster consommé. Photo: Steven Richter

        We’re with a major Burke fan who adores his schtick.  She’s swept away by the youthful energy in this faux barn, the noise, the low country look with slatted tunnel ceiling, bare tables, portraits of rural types eyeing each other across the room, blue and white checked napkins. Is there music too?  It’s too noisy to be sure. She knows how to project vocally. I’m projecting right back.

Don’t ignore the bearer of great bread.  Photo: Steven Richter

        Sipping a mildly bitter cocktail – rye, aperol and not too much agave – “I want to taste that aperol,” I tell our waiter.  I’ve become uncharacteristically positive myself.  Indeed, the bread tray delivers its own high with a rosemary boule and marvelous olive-walnut bread from Bouchon bakery and irresistible rustic seven grain from nearby Grandaisy. 

Calling it a barn doesn’t  disguise that it’s a cellar, but hey, it’s fun. Photo: Steven Richter

        Before we can even focus on the menu – pretzel crabcake, “ants on a log,” Camembert ravioli, pressed heads-on prawns atop spicy spaghetti – the kitchen has sent out two items from the “Snack” offerings as an amuse. Tendrils of salmon pastrami glistening with mustard oil come wrapped around pretzel sticks, a slick,satiny, heavenly mouthful.  And peanut butter-stuffed dates wrapped in maple bacon have us moaning like baby Bieber fans.

Savor the goodness in a little jar, just don’t break a tooth on the crouton. Photo: Steven Richter

        We must sample those jars, of course, four of them on this week’s menu. Chicken liver mousse with prune and pistachio offers several creamy dollops for each of us. Layerings of tomato jam, ricotta and eggplant with lemon, chive, and a hit of curry oil are even better, a savory original at just $6, though the toasts alongside are so ossified, I’m afraid one bite will break a tooth. Of course, we have our stash of good bread for smearing and sopping.

There’s a marvelous foie gras corn cake under maitakes on the duck dish. Photo: Steven Richter

        I would have bet that a David Burke iceberg wedge would shove anyone else’s wedge to the curb.  It’s not even a wedge, for starters, but a big round core of lettuce stuffed with candied pecans, dried cranberries and bits of pear, in a tomato vinaigrette with crumblings of blue cheese. Salad, cheese and dessert on a single plate.

A lot of style but not enough lively pea flavor in this soup. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Pea soup in two acts is pretty enough. Act One, a poached egg wrapped in prosciutto and tied with a scallion ribbon, ham hocks hiding out underneath… followed by a pour of mint tea-spiked split pea soup.  But I miss a blast of real pea taste.  Still, I’d come back for the marvelous foie gras corn cake, even though the soy honey duck ringing it is unremarkable. The pork chop, ordered “rarish,” with parsley onion rings, is good enough to take leftovers home once you shove aside the over-caramelized pork cheek and the blackened too sweet sludge of apple bacon marmalade.

Scrape away the apple-bacon marmelade sludge for a fine pork chop. Photo: Steven Richter

        In the kitchen - girding to feed the hordes when the terrace opens and Burke rides off to his next conquest – executive chef Jedd Adair bears solid cred from days at Degustation, Corton, Toqueville, plus golden times when Rocco de Spirito took cooking seriously at Union Pacific.  He can throw together Monday’s mac ‘n’cheese dinner special for the Road Food Warrior. This sticky toss of fusilli, cooked in parmesan water for extra thickness, and Cabot clothbound cheddar mixed with herb purée is not macaroni by a stretch, but it’s so good you might decide not to sue for false advertising. Smoked barley risotto with little flutters of mushroom deserves attention as more than a $7 side. Pair it with jalapeno French fries cooked in smoked beef fat, divide an entrée - it’s a carbophiliac’s dinner for two.

Next time I’ll save room for one of each little petits fours on the stove. Photo: Steven Richter

        While photographing the dollhouse iron stove lined with petits fours earlier, I planned to reserve one of my own.  But after so many extras crowding our table, dessert looms as possibly painful. I’m still Insatiable, but believe me, it was always just a playful metaphor.  This moment of clarity and sanity is quickly destroyed as desserts arrive anyway, demanding to be tasted. I can resist coconut cream cake with salted macadamias and rum sauce, but not gianduja hazelnut mousse sandwiched in chocolate with ginger Rice Krispie clumps. Then a final Burkeian signature: monkey bread for two, baked in a cake tin with pecans, caramel, chewy slices of banana, spooned up by the captain with clouds of vanilla ice cream. Since the tin has a top, we must take the two-thirds remaining with us, inspiring a note from the kitchen tucked into a David Burke shopping bag: “We’re glad that you liked your meal so much that you’re taking it home.”

Banana and caramel monkey bread comes baked in a handy take-away tin. Photo: Steven Richter

        No point in weeping for olden times when chefs stayed in their kitchens and didn’t have empires or stylists or pluck their eyebrows. The most we dare ask today is that they groom a solid second to take over when they jet away to Singapore or Dubai.  Burke has committed to breakfast, lunch, dinner and room service at the James.  The garden could open within three weeks, he thinks, he hopes, and easily hold 200 diners, but he plans to keep it at 100 ordering from a menu of “outdoor food, if there is such a thing.”  With no tall buildings blocking the view, “sunsets will be terrific.”  He might introduce a mini-farmers market on Saturdays: “Maybe bread, honey, tomatoes, just four farmers to start.”  What’s next?  “Well, it’s New York. I’ve always wanted a steak house in New York.”

23 Grand Street between Grand and Thompson Streets.  212 201 9119 Monday through Friday breakfast 7 to 10 am. Lunch noon to 3 pm. Brunch Saturday 10 am to 3 pm, Sunday 10 to 4 pm. Dinner seven days 5 to 11 pm. Weekend late night menu 11 pm to 2 am.