Is David on set?” asks the lady with the grape-size earrings as a crowd of us mingle uneasily by the coat check, in the narrow mosh pit of a bar space at Fishtail, David Burke’s new seafood restaurant on East 62nd Street. Burke isn’t “on set,” as it happens, but all around us the chef’s trademark Willy Wonka flamboyance is on full display. The downstairs bar area is stuffed with purple banquettes and the walls are patterned with white, wavy ridges like the belly of a whale. Upstairs, the walls are adorned with oil paintings of psychedelic fish, and nattily dressed waiters bustle between the tables, hoisting toppling “Fishtail Towers” heaped with stone-crab claws from Florida and oysters from Yakima Bay. The tables are packed with antic couples from Jersey and round-faced gentlemen with deep Florida suntans, and the din in the joint is so loud that one of the bedazzled downtowners at my table compared it to “a grenade going off in the basement of Barneys.”
David Burke is a virtuoso chef with a distinct, razzle-dazzle style, and at Fishtail he seeks to impose it on the delicate, dwindling world of seafood. The menu is a predictably dramatic document (fishtail by david burke is its headline), with many sections (eight, by my count) and a multitude of dishes with theatrical, forced-sounding names (monkfish “paella,” calamari mac and cheese, “Dry-Roasted Angry Mussels”). Some of these creations taste forced, too, and a few of them do not. The circumspect downtowners enjoyed Burke’s “Rice Crispy crab cake,” which is covered in crackly puffed rice, fried until golden, and portaged to the table on a block of glass. The baroque seafood tacos were palatable (try the ones stuffed with sweet blue crab or chunks of lemony hamachi dressed with avocado), although a mad Burkian pasta creation called “soft-shell snails” (shell-less escargots, plus gummy pasta shells, plus too much garlic) was barely edible, even after I removed the slippery black snails.
“More is better” has always been one of Burke’s credos, but with fish, where the emphasis is on freshness and simplicity, this can be a dangerous game. The “Angry Mussels” at Fishtail (steamed Nova Scotia mussels drizzled, ineffectually, with chile oil, among other things) are a tired parody of Burke’s famous Angry Lobster, which you can taste at the chef’s non-seafood restaurant around the corner. The “Fussy Fish” section of the menu includes a labored version of Dover sole bombed, inexplicably, with candied grapefruit, and an overwrought creation called swordfish-steak “Rossini” stuck with baby carrots, a block of polenta, and a flap of sautéed foie gras. The calamari mac and cheese turned out to be a goopy mash of squid rings and oversauced pasta, although my helping of “Maine-lobster carbonara” was a decent facsimile of spaghetti carbonara, provided you ignored the lobster, the silly caviar garnish, and the $35 sticker price.
If you avoid these strained attempts at innovation, however, it’s possible to have a decent, even festive dinner at Fishtail. The pieces of halibut and snapper I ordered off the “Simple Fish” section of the menu were fresh and expertly cooked, and so was the seared salmon, which is served on a semi-nutritious bed of stewed black lentils. For an extra $7.50, you can slather your fish with a selection of “Top Hat” garnishes (garlicky clams and chorizo, shrimp-and-leek fondue), but if you’re wise, you’ll stick to the simple caper-and-herb vinaigrette.
The restaurant’s signature “Can o’ Cake” dessert is a silver canister of molten-chocolate cake as big as a land mine and so fearsomely rich my finicky, pint-size daughters rejected it when I brought it home as a gift. If you’re in the mood for something sweet, I suggest the banana tart. It’s made with an elegant graham-cracker crust and a drizzling of butterscotch, and, more than most of the food at Fishtail, it manages to strike that classic Burkean balance between ingenuity, showmanship, and fun.
The newly refurbished Oak Room has been open for several months now in the star-crossed monument to gilded-era boomtime Manhattan, the Plaza Hotel. But my first meal there was so overpriced ($55 for that old warhorse tournedos Rossini), so tragically tone-deaf and outdated that I thought it prudent to wait until some of the very substantial kinks had been worked out before I returned. Two months later, I’m sad to report that nothing much has changed. The vacant halls outside the restaurant still feel like something from the set of The Shining. The tablecloths in the grand dining room are still a dull, Marriott Hotel pink and are set with fluorescent glass lamps that have an uncanny resemblance to comb holders in an ancient barbershop. The room’s famous oaken moldings are still impressive to look at, but you can barely see them through the dim, sepulchral gloom.
The stagy, oppressive atmosphere at the new Oak Room is not greatly relieved by the quality of the food. On my first visit, the menu was an overlong, slightly ham-fisted compendium of the kind of luxury-hotel grub savvy New Yorkers don’t much eat anymore. It’s now been pared to a more manageable size, although the quality is still various. My Parmesan-laced mushroom risotto was almost worth its $22 price, although the Dover sole that followed ($43) was overcooked in knobby chunks and apparently someone forgot to debone it. The duck did not benefit from either the kumquats or the bok choy it came with, and my desiccated braised short ribs resembled a sad imitation of corned beef. We waited roughly 25 minutes between the courses, and the desserts included gimmicky chocolate “cigars” touched with armagnac, and tired little triangles of carrot cake so tortured-looking they prompted one of my guests to put down her fork in exasperation. “I’m sorry, I wouldn’t serve this food to people who came to my home,” she said.