December 18, 2008 | BITE: My Journal
Fish Tales by David Burke

Small shrimp and sea urchin risotto under a froth in the uni shell. Photo: Steven Richter
Small shrimp and sea urchin risotto under a froth in the uni shell. Photo: Steven Richter

        “We’re in soft opening,” the reservationist at David Burke’s brand new Fishtail advises over the phone. That suggests the place has opened quietly under the radar – with not even a squeak to Florence Fabricant – but, in fact, the townhouse that used to be Jovia is vibrating tonight with smart young things at the raw bar below and optimistic neighbors like Geraldine Ferraro and friends at a table next to Alan Stillman and his wife in the dining room above.

        Burke himself is a greeter in mufti as if to make it clear he just dreamed up the place, a showcase for sustainable fish, some of it supplied by his own fishing boat.  (After all, the man keeps half a bull - shared with ex-partner Steve Hansen - busy inseminating cows for their mutual steakhouses so a personal trawler is almost tame.) This is the New Age chef.  Clearly, you won’t find him in the kitchen fretting over the daily changing menu. That’s the domain of Executive Chef Eric Hara. But Burke, the irrepressible punster, is evident in swordfish steak “Rossini,” a collection of  “Fishtails” – monkfish, lobster, cod, prawn – and a category of garnishes and sauces at $8 each called “fish top hats.”  Get it Fred, top hats and tails? The lobster ragout minestrone and garlicky clams with chorizo are two proposed embellishments for simple whole roasted fish for two priced by the pound. Not an unknown I want to leap into these days.

This could be the only time you’ll see chef-mogul David Burke playing captain. Photo: Steven Richter

        This duplex, just around the corner from what will soon officially be David Burke’s Townhouse now that he has split with partner Donatella Arpaia, isn’t an easy space. But Burke fans might not care. And my friends who live in the zip code can stop complaining they have nowhere to eat. The Chinese red wall casts a warm glow.  There are fish everywhere and bold chandelier sculptures to make you gasp.  A romantic ménage a trois could warm up with fork play at the lone table tucked into an alcove behind the stairs.  Though prices that seem pretty boomtime – entrees start at $21 but favor the thirties with $40 for Dover Sole and $55 for an aged ribeye – could curdle romance.  

Waiters tote trays to the dining room crowd upstairs.  Photo: Steven Richter

Nantucket scallops. Photo: Steven Richter
        Yet, early though it is, the kitchen is already impressive. Layers of spice and pepper add pizzazz to Taylor bay scallops seviche with baby shrimp, grapefruit, avocado and tomato-lime sauce. Luscious calamari and oysters tempura have a Thai sweet chili dipping sauce. No way can we resist the pretzel croissant nor very good petit pains. I’m happy enough with the Caesar though the anchovy is discreet to a fault for my taste.  No wonder the laughing bird shrimp (shrimpy shrimp) are laughing. The tiny creatures lurk alongside tangy bits of kimchi in lush sea urchin risotto that arrives in a spiked uni shell, a primitive bowl, but to the point. It’s a starter the Road Food Warrior has chosen as an entrée and I can see he’d rather not share it. 

        Rice Krispy crab cake is the chef funning around again, not crisp at all. Here’s a case for less concept and more crab. And layered foie gras, prawn and chicken mousse in a terrine is too retro ladies bridge party for me. Amazingly, at this point all it takes is a second pretzel croissant to blur the disappointment.

Maine lobster tail carbonara is one of a quartet of “tails.” Photo: Steven Richter

        My swordfish “Steak Frites,” wearing a disc of maître d’hôtel butter, is cooked exactly as I requested but desperately needs a few twists of the salt mill (that pink stuff is Hawaiian salt) and the fries are soggy. But giant grilled prawn “tails” with basil, lemon and piquillo peppers ($39) are a perfect marriage between man and nature, and the Maine lobster tail ($36) surfing a near-carbonara specked with peas, sun dried tomato and caviar is a triumph. Especially if you believe it can be good for the soul as well as the economy to defy the financial meltdown.

        Next to us a German-speaking twosome is picking Burke’s cheesecake lollypops off a metal “tree.” Our own foursome decide to seal the evening with the stickiness of apple toffee pudding cake and three ramekins of splendid sorbets. Burke insists we try his newest gambit – the “Can o’ Cake.” Actually, it’s a dense almost-pudding cake – chocolate and white – baked in a cake tin and still warm. A captain commandeers the now vacant table alongside, setting up a performance space. Will we have the Japanese rice pearls? 




        Crème anglaise?

        Why not!

        Caramel frosting?

        Yes. Yes.

        Ice cream? He doesn’t wait for the answer. “Now I’ll cover the tin so everything melts together a little from the warmth of the cake and tin.”

        He scoops out huge ovals to four dessert plates, then spoons on more ice cream.

Can o’ Cake. Photo: Steven Richter
        One part of me is emotionally offended. My innate Craig Claiborne, the purist. The classic Julia Child who lives on inside my head. Even memories of my late Aunt Eve’s devil’s food cake and Shelly Fireman’s “Grandma’s Mixing Bowl” and my own outrageous Chocolate Wickedness (borrowed from Paula Peck). But it’s also a delicious travesty. And the leftover I brought home is almost as irresistible the next morning with a mug of long drawn out espresso.

        135 East 62nd Street between Park and Lexington 212 754 1300