November 30, 1987 | Vintage Insatiable

David K: Home on the Range

          For all the strange ways of the Western World that David Keh has mastered, his stomach remains unreformably Chinese. Take him to the most wonderful French dinner and he will invariably stop home for something decent to eat.

          Well, now we can stop home, too -- at the revisionist David K’s in its newest incarnation, kind to the arteries, kind to the bank account.

          Perhaps you remember the strapping white-marble Fu dogs that once guarded the most ambitious, highest-priced wokdom in town? One day, the two Fus simply vanished. Keh had lost control of his moody crew. (I recall one evening when the waiters turned up the lights and started vacuuming to drive lingering diners from the room.)

          In a burst of ecumenism, Keh installed the Safari Grill upstairs -- first Chicago nouvelle, then Far Eastern exotica -- and enjoyed a wonderfully inscrutable success with his Café Marimba downstairs (although he never did quite understand Mexican cooking). But he never felt the least bit at home.

          Actually, the new David K’s is really Mrs. David K’s. Jean, elegant and soft-spoken, is now doing her own aristocratic version of Leona Helmsley -- the Queen is in the kitchen! And David is impressed. It is partly her menu, her robust casseroles, cozy home cooking, surprisingly subtle, often sublimely delicious.

          Sichuan-pepper-heads numbed by fire may have to be persuaded. “Everything is spicy and hot?” one of my guests asks, full of hope. No. It isn’t. Indeed, when I order Danny Kaye’s shredded vegetables with Chinese sausage in whole-wheat pancakes “extra peppery” to sooth her, the dish loses all flavor.

          Say good-bye to hot flashes. Start with jumping shrimp -- in the shell, heads intact, sweet and fresh from the Chinatown market. Ask for swordfish, too, with slow-roasted whole scallions; juicy chicken dumplings in a sesame sauce; chopped mustard greens with fresh lima beans and a punctuation of pork; and squab for two, not fried in oil as usual, but roasted to a honeyed caramel on the spit.

          You may never have tasted bean curd so delicate and quivering as this, with two dipping sauces, one soy perfumed with ginger, the other pungent dynamite. Discovering a taste-and-texture seduction like freshwater chestnuts and snow peas is like rediscovering homegrown roses after an obsession with rare orchids.

          Don’t miss scallops Cantonese -- David’s version of egg fu yung -- even if its voluptuous coating and fresh-pea-studded egg means using your cholesterol allotment for a week. Ask for spoons so everyone can share the haunting broth of Jean Keh’s casseroles -- meatballs with swirls of slippery noodles and cabbage, or juicy chicken on the bone with mushrooms and basil. Also recommended: barely cooked lobster in the shell with a lemony aura, and rice noodles with bean sprouts, ham, and red pepper -- “Chinese sauerkraut,” my companions dub it.

          Infinitely less than thrilling are very ordinary gingered lobster, bland chicken hand rolls (to wrap in watery lettuce), listless lamb with scallions, and lackluster pork with cashews, leek, and hot peppers. Fat-phobic friends are thrilled to find chicken with its skin crisped Peking-duck-style to wrap in whole-wheat pancakes with scallion and hoisin. Though chicken is a leaner bird, I find this one a bit drab and dry. And the tariff, $28.50, seems excessive in an otherwise moderate price scheme -- appetizers from $4.50, entrees $13.50 to $18, making it possible to spend a little or a lot. Charging $1.50 for tea seems a bit rude, too. But there is an astonishingly discounted lunch ($9.95), and a Peking-chicken brunch on weekends with a Bloody Mary, choice of starter, dessert, and tea for just $14.95.

          The real news here is Keh’s timely passion not just for simplicity but also for health. There are no puddles of fat, nothing canned or frozen, “absolutely no MSG,” the menu promises. It’s not quite a spa, but neither is it a killing field.

          Be warned, please -- this venture is still adolescent and tentative, still evolving. A sudden burst of traffic early on had the kitchen struggling, the pace unhappily slowed. One Sunday, David Keh himself could be seen improvising behind the kitchen counter. And there was no time at all for Jean Keh to bake the ginger cookies she wants to serve with ice cream. Dessert now includes fresh-pineapple-and-almond tart, which David Liederman (the cookie man) taught Jean in a four-hour session one afternoon.

          The truth is, I know David Keh very well. He is a friend. I could write about distractions overseas and a mid-life crisis, but he would be embarrassed. So perhaps it’s enough to say he seems to have settled down again, with good home cooking China-style in the cavernous Third Avenue space where he once made his name.

David K’s, 1115 Third Avenue, near 65th Street

Cafe Fiorello