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davidburke & donatella

Note: Click here for a more recent review of this restaurant, which has been renamed David Burke Townhouse.

Once upon a time, David Burke and Donatella Arpaia opened a hot little restaurant on the Upper East Side. They called it davidburke & donatella. The food was inventive and terrific. The space was noisy, but when the food was this good, who cared? It was packed every night. Flushed with success, Arpaia opened her own place in Soho (the undistinguished Ama). Burke took over the catering operation at nearby Bloomingdale’s, launched a steakhouse in Chicago, and started planning another in Manhattan.

With all of this extra-curricular activity going on, is anyone minding the store at the flagship restaurant that bears both their names? My experience last night suggests that one or both of them needs to start spending more time at East 61st St, ere DB&D becomes a sad caricature of itself. I still have fond memories of my first visit (eighteen months ago), but the restaurant is now misfiring.

This was a year-end celebratory dinner with two friends who live in Boston, but have been working in New York. We knew that the transit strike would make it difficult to get uptown, and my friends suggested that we cancel. However, I was determined to keep the date. We hailed a cab immediately, but the driver had first to drop off somebody else, which required a bit of a detour. In all, it was about a 90-minute trip from our TriBeCa office to the restaurant, more than double than normal. Exasperated with the traffic, we left our cab behind at 57th & Park, and walked the last five blocks. (FYI, taxis during the strike are charging per person by the number of fare zones crossed; we were charged $15 apiece — $5 times three zones.)

Transit strike notwithstanding, DB&D was fully booked. They graciously honored our reservation, although we were 40 minutes late. The noise level was just as I had remembered it: practically deafening. The server dropped off an amuse bouche, but we couldn’t hear his description of it. We were barely able to ascertain that it contained no pork (which my companions do not eat). It was a small pastry filled with some kind of tangy meat—but what?

The wonderful bread service that I wrote about last time remains the same. (“Bread arrives — cooked in its own copper casserole, and steaming hot. The butter comes as a modern art sculpture that you almost regret cutting into.”)

My companions are identical twins, and they ordered identically. They started with grilled oysters, which they described as unpleasantly gooey, and left unfinished. I had the Scallops “Benedict” ($15). This was two fried egg yolks, each atop a scallop, atop a slice of bacon, atop a potato pancake: in short, about two ingredients too many; a promising idea run amok. The bacon was salty and tough, as if left over from breakfast the day before.

My companions did better than I for the main course. They had the Lobster “Steak” with curried shoestring potatoes ($40). They got an enormous helping of lobster, shaped like a fillet mignon, with which they were quite happy. Alas, I had no joy with the Halibut “T-Bone” ($38), which came with lobster dumplings that were both tough and gummy. The halibut was bland, and the portion was small.

Although the restaurant has been open just two years, there is already a section of the dessert menu labeled “DBD Classics,” from which we ordered. My companions shared the famous cheesecake lollipop tree ($16), while I had the coconut layer cake ($10). This was the only course that all of us found successful, and the only part of the meal that I’ll remember with any fondness.

David Burke was in the restaurant last night, but he was in civilian clothes, talking on his cell phone. He’s obviously not minding his kitchen, and he’s not minding his website either. Visit http://www.dbdrestaurant.com/, and you’ll be reminded that “Thanksgiving is just around the corner.” (It is Dec. 22 as I write this.) There are bugs in the site, and it takes several frustrating clicks to get to the online menu, which is outdated anyway. (The first click brings up David Burke’s spring recipies, instead of a menu. The second click brings up a section called “Our Little Nest.” Another click, and finally you see the menu.)

We wondered how difficult it would be to get a taxi home. Although there are plenty of taxis out, you can’t easily tell whether they’re available, because the meters aren’t running during the strike. As we were all rather full, we decided to walk off some of the calories, and see how far we got. In the end, we just kept walking. It was about two hours from 61st & Lex to John & Gold, or about 6-7 miles in 30-degree weather. But it was a lot more pleasant than sitting in a taxi.

As I observed last time, the tables at DB&D are packed as tightly as can be. Our table was near the front door, in front of the bar, and a long walk from the kitchen. Our server was pleasant and tried hard, but she was obviously very busy, and there were long stretches when we didn’t see her. I ordered a glass of wine to go with the appetizers. I would have ordered a second glass of wine, but by the time she re-appeared the meal was almost over, and I didn’t bother. They did manage to keep our water glasses replenished.

Marian Burros of the Times rated DB&D at two stars. On the strength of my first visit, I thought that the restaurant arguably deserved three. On the weakness of last night’s visit, it would earn only one. The bill for three was $228.50 before tax and tip, and there was only one alcoholic beverage (my glass of Riesling) in that amount. At these prices, DB&D needs to do better. For now, I would give the food two stars for good intentions, but only one for execution.

Food: *½
Service: *
Ambiance: *
Overall: *½

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