It’s easy to forget, given the recent, well-documented trend toward low-rent, comfort-oriented, utilitarian dining, that a restaurant is, at its heart, a theatrical enterprise. After all, the money one person can expect to pay for a first-rate meal in New York is roughly equivalent to the cost of a ticket to a single overpriced Broadway show. In restaurants, as in theater, patrons pay for a lush, contrived setting replete with stagey scenery and sophisticated lighting techniques. They even pay for costumed players who, for an hour or two, produce a diverting narrative entertainment over the course of three acts. Once upon a time, back in the dim, not-so-distant past, such entertainments included all sorts of avant-garde culinary techniques. Visit a restaurant, and you’d find dishes like foie gras smothered in chocolate sauce, haunches of côte de boeuf smoked on great pyres of hay, or, for dessert, silver candelabras stuck with lollipops made of cheesecake, with a sidecar of bubble-gum-flavored whipped cream for dipping.
The author of this last Willy Wonka confection is David Burke, a flamboyant, Rabelaisian figure of the old school. Burke was a gleeful participant in the wacky culinary experiments of the premillennial years, first at the River Café, then at Park Avenue Café, where he perfected his cheesecake lollipops. Now, after an unhappy period wandering in the comfort-food wilderness (at Smith & Wollensky’s at the Plaza Hotel), he’s returned with a restaurant of his own, davidburke & donatella. The Donatella in the title isn’t actually Donatella Versace (it’s Donatella Arpaia, owner of Bellini), although it might as well be. Their establishment, on the bottom floor of a prim townhouse near Bloomingdale’s, is decorated in vivid shades of crimson, chocolate, and white. The main dining room is walled with scarlet-fringed mirrors and hung with a glass-bead chandelier, and if you’re feeling nostalgic for the old days, the proprietors even keep a stretch limousine idling by the curb in the evenings, where you can sit and light up a smoke.
The main attraction at davidburke & donatella, however, is Burke’s food, which is characteristically inventive, sometimes over-the-top, and often delicious. Many of the dishes are arranged with circus props, in toppling towers, and at my table people kept swiveling their heads as the food went by, like spectators at some loony Dr. Seuss fashion show. Take the foie gras terrine, which, in Burke’s hands, assumes an unearthly orange glow thanks to an infusion of kumquats. It’s presented on a block of glass strewn with herbs, along with three armagnac grapes encrusted in cornflakes and a foie gras parfait topped with a capering silver monkey. This fine appetizer was accompanied to our table by a pair of scallops decked out in eggs Benedict style, with little fried quail eggs laid over potato cakes and slivers of chorizo; a superior unshelled lobster, quartered and rolled in fiery Cajun spices and then spiked, like so many tulips, on a flower holder; and an exceptional salmon-and-tuna parfait that Burke constructs in a little turret with a skimming of crème fraîche and caviar at its top.
“People kept swiveling their heads as the food went by, like spectators at some loony Dr. Seuss fashion show.”
I would order any of these appetizers again, especially the lobster (“crisp and angry lobster cocktail” is the official name), which requires the kind of shell-sucking focus good lobster deserves but hardly ever receives in this glitzy, expedient town. I’d also reorder the blue-crab ravioli, which is served in a light minestrone broth, and another duo of sea scallops (available on the tasting menu) piled over little logs of cannelloni stuffed with a savory short-rib hash. In the Asian-fusion category, there’s also a reasonable Burkean interpretation of tuna sashimi (with uni-flavored panna cotta on the side), and a fine piece of salmon that is rubbed in ginger, piled over mustard greens and sweet Chinese sausages, and served with a tall shot glass brimming with the kind of spicy, fishy, fresh XO sauce that you never, ever see in Chinatown.
One evening, I thought I witnessed Walter Cronkite himself tippling from a glass of this XO sauce, although maybe it was another dish. The great man was surrounded by other elderly media moguls from bygone New York. In a few short weeks, the restaurant has become a magnet for nostalgic big-city types. There are lunching ladies on their way to Bloomingdale’s, adventurous Upper East Side swells, portly Italian gentlemen from the outer boroughs dressed in their shimmering, shark-colored suits. They dine on delicious entrées like Dover sole (set in a pool of tomato-mint butter with a pile of lightly crisped zucchini strips), and the not-so-delicious lobster “steak,” which tasted more like a lumpy, oversweetened flan than lobster. The barbecued squab was similarly overdressed with a sugary sauce (it comes with a cornbread “torte” larded with foie gras), so if you want a comforting poultry item, try the roasted chicken, which is brine-soaked for tenderness and served over a nourishing mash of vegetables and potatoes.
The front of the room is ruled with an iron fist by Donatella herself, and if your dining party is a little late, or your name’s not Cronkite, you may find yourself cooling your heels in the bar area for hours. You can get a decent martini at the bar, however, and if dinner looks like a dim prospect, you can always order one of Burke’s baroque desserts, a few of which are meals in themselves. The best of the bunch is the smooth butterscotch panna cotta, served with swirls of curried cocoa gelée in a tall martini glass. Then, of course, there are the cheesecake lollipops. Burke actually patented these curiously tasty items long ago (you can buy them on his Website). In case you don’t remember, they come covered with crumbled bits of Heath bar. The supporting dish of bubble-gum whipped cream actually tastes just like real bubble gum. Like lots of the food at davidburke & donatella, it’s curiously tasty, too, in a refreshingly nostalgic sort of way.