David Burke, the playful chef who serves cheesecake lollipops and lobster “steaks,” has taken his act to the James Hotel in Soho. His new restaurant, David Burke Kitchen, occupies a charmless basement that could double as a fallout shelter.
“It’s a challenge to make a basement attractive,” he told the Times. I’ll say.
They’ve done their best to gussy it up. There’s a long, handsome bar, widely-spaced bare wood tables, and a fully exposed kitchen. If you’re sufficiently distracted, you might not notice that the space has only tiny slivers for windows, at ceiling level.
The reasons could be related to Burke’s apparent willingness to franchise himself all over the place, whether it’s David Burke at Bloomingdales, the now-closed Hawaiian Tropic Zone (practically a strip club without the lapdances), or a bowling alley. If you pay enough for his celebrity, then you can put the restaurant into whatever godawful space you choose.
Or maybe David Burke Kitchen is meant to be a more serious effort, like David Burke Townhouse (the former David Burke & Donatella) and Fishtail on the Upper East Side. Despite their unevenness, those places are real David Burke restaurants, not just consulting engagements. On the right day, they can be very good.
The menu is full of Burke’s trademark whimsy: Ants on a Log; a pretzle crab cake; prawn sauce made in a duck press. Most of these dishes may even be good, but can it last after he moves onto the next project? He was ever-present in the dining room last Friday night—at least looking the part of a working chef, though I had no illusions that he was actually doing anything but schmooze.
Prices are lower than at his Upper East Side places, but not cheap, with appetizers $12–17, entrées $22–45, and side dishes $7. There was no amuse bouche, but bread service was impressive for a downtown restaurant, with three kinds of bread (I had the cranberry walnut), and what appeared to be house-made butter.
Bison Tartare ($14; below left) was wonderful, topped with egg salad and smoked tomatoes, with fingerling potato crisps on the side.
There is a rabbit in the restaurant’s logo, and an ever-changing rabbit dish has been on every menu I’ve seen. The version I had ($28; above right) crossed the line from inventive to bizarre. Rabbit medallions were stuffed with chorizo sausage, with two King Crab claws on top, a soupy risotto on the bottom, and at least two sauces. The individual components weren’t bad, but it looked and tasted like an entrée designed by committee.
I dined at the bar, where the server was knowledgeable and attentive. The two cocktails I had were well made, if on the expensive side: the Rabbit Hunter ($14) with bourbon, ginger beer, fresh mint, and lime; and The Border ($15), with tequila, mezcal blanco, ginger, agave, and a slice of beef jerky on a spear.
As I’ve noted before, hotel restaurants are lower-risk projects than stand-alone ones, as the hotel subsidizes the space, and its guests provide a captive audience. It’s an open question whether David Burke Kitchen has staying power with fickle downtown diners, especially if Burke himself doesn’t stick around to keep his whimsical menu from running off the rails.
David Burke Kitchen (27 Grand Street at Sixth Avenue, in the James Hotel, Soho)