Manhattan Sunday Morning - New York Entry #14
Restaurants are industrial organizations. They consist of line workers whose job is to manufacture when required. But unlike many factories, there is no room for inventory (cakes, excepted). Production is required immediately. And unlike services such as cobblers, laundresses, or auto mechanics, one can not request customers to return later while these professionals operate on their own schedule.
Of course, high-end restaurants, like surgeons or beauticians, require reservations to provide some temporal control. Yet, until operating theaters or salons, the number of dining reservations scheduled is a function of the size of the room rather than the time necessary for focused of attention to the needs of a particular client. When the restaurant is jammed, all hell breaks loose. Restaurants are routinely overstaffed, except for those moments at which they are dramatically understaffed. These moments - typically termed "the rush" - are necessary for a restaurant to be financially successful. At the best restaurants a rush is a high for workers, allowing them a sense of flow, flying through the kitchen, but it also creates a pressured space where mistakes happen.
This Sunday some friends and I decided on a late brunch at davidburke & donatella. davidburke is David Burke, formerly at River Café and Park Avenue Café. donatella is Donatella Arpaia a former attorney turned restauranteur. The name reminds me of a hoary magic act in which Mr. burke would climax by sawing his skimpily-clad assistant in half. Could he be channeling Charo?
We made reservations for 11:30. I can hear New Yorkers snickering at these rubes. In Chicago, our day is half over. When we arrived the restaurant was empty. Was davidburke & donatella suffering from being under-capitalized?
We had the staff to ourselves, hovering to snatch our plates before we were quite done - although perhaps they were aware of the circus to come. But at 11:30 we enjoyed the tight, but pretty, room, decorated in bright swaths of red; everything from the banquettes to the servers' ties was rosy, centered by an explosion of lilies in a stunning centerpiece. By 12:30, the space revealed its flaws. The staging area for the servers was near our table, and it was apparent that the tiny corner needed a redesign with plates teetering. The room became raucous with servers charging about, nearly colliding, and forgetting to bring both the sauce for one of our courses and our bill, the latter despite the customers waited to be served. What had been a restful brunch had become rush hour. Yet, despite flaws in the preparations, I could find no kitchen problem that I could easily attribute to the crowds. I recognize the need to squeeze in customers, but next time I will play a Chicago farmer and appear at a bleary ten a.m.
On first arriving, servers placed an object in front of me that seemed a simple popover. With thoughts of Boston's Anthony's Pier Four, I tapped it expecting the souffle to collapse. The roll tapped right back. Was it a Candid Camera roll? (davidburke can be playful, as in his signature cheesecake lollipop tree with bubblegum whipped cream.) I was so confused that I asked a servers (We had four at the start of the brunch), whether this was how it was to be. Assured that it was not last Sunday's antique, I broke it open with the imagined mess. No popover this, but a faux-popover hard roll. Not bad, but not the first thing to tackle with a hangover.
One guest began with "Fresh Berry [black and blue] Granola and Vanilla Yogurt Parfait with Mango Donuts." This is a good and straightforward dish. The berries were fresh, the granola was crunchy, and the yogurt mixed nicely. Less successful were the accompanying "mango donuts." Guess: What is a mango donut? Wrong. At db&d, it is a chewy little dough ball (doball?) with a bleak and bland mango-ish sauce. Bleech.
The warm asparagus with wild mushrooms, chorizo, black olives and goat cheese would have been just fine had the kitchen merely forgotten the asparagus. These tough old stalks had no place in a fine new restaurant. That the stalks were intended was testified by the fact that the kitchen had scraped them. If one cannot find baby asparagi, why not substitute a baby carrot disguised by guacamole? The mushrooms were delightful (the morning had a fungal flair), and the goat cheese and chorizo added a nice tang.
The third appetizer was "Pretzel Crusted Crabcake Tempura with Mango and Poppy Seed Honey." Put aside intramural debates about when frying becomes tempura, and let us admit that the batter, while not soggy, was not as crispy as to make it memorable. Still the crabcake was luxurious, enriched with dabs of mango vinaigrette and what tasted to me like a cumin aoili, circling the plate in delicious dipping dots of yellow and beige. The unadvertised segments of grapefruit was unneeded, but as readers of my reports know any chef who plays with bitterness gets a free pass.
The first main dish was "Classic Eggs Benedict." Classic it was, and well-made. It was served with a couch potato serving: an oversized mound of shoestring potatoes. The crispy threads sprinkled the table with tiny nubs of spuddy goodness.
I ordered Short Ribs of Beef with Wild Mushroom Cavatelli and Truffle Mousse. davidburke is described in Steven A. Shaw's Turning the Tables as a man who loves his meat, and these ribs were stunning. This is meat that you could cut with a butter knife. As a mushroom picker I greedily consume fungi with a smile. Were the meat not rich enough, the truffle mousse would have solved any spartan quality, abetted by the earthy mushroom cavatelli. I am not usually a fan of truffles, believing little slices add more to the bill than to the dish, but this belonged. The only surprise - and not a happy one - were a small pile of rather sad and tepid porcini chips.
The third main dish is course was stellar: Sheared Brown Eggs and Dried Figs with Braised Short Rib Hash. But before my groveling praise, three cavils. Cavil one: Perhaps the kitchen had run out of those distasteful dried figs, but our figs were fresh and moist. Cavil two: Brown eggs? - how would we know unless the chef left little bits of shell around for us to check? Cavil three: I had thought that sheared eggs were scrambled, not fried. Cavils aside, db's dish was spectacular. I adore the voluptuous mix of meat and fruit, and no fruit promotes concupiscence more than the beloved fig. With db's meat fixation, this dish could be placed on my culinary rotation.
Desserts were mixed in execution. Least successful was a "Warm & Crisp Apple Tart" (with cider caramel and cinnamon ice cream). The tart was not crisp (it was warm), but warm and stale might not pass muster with restaurant consultants, although it might create a unique market niche. The cider caramel was a proper mix, and the cinnamon ice cream, if not luxuriant, was cool and spicy.
Better was a canonical version of Vanilla Creme Brulee, properly crunchy and smooth, above and below. A traditionalist could enjoy a most pleasant brunch at db&d with Organic Greens, Eggs Benedict, and Creme Brulee. Perhaps the portion was over generous at the end of a rich brunch, but had we will-power, such complaints could be shelved.
My dessert was lovely: Butterscotch Panna Cotta with Curried Cocoa Gelée. The martini glass filled with perfect whipped pudding with little shards of chocolate, topped with a butterscotch jam. At the bottom of the glass was a joyous curried cocoa liquid, which could only have been more satisfying if there was twice as much. There was not enough to infuse in the panna cotta, but my last three bites were memorable. The dish was an advertisement that desserts can be as complex as any amuse bouche.
At times I was disappointed with the service and the kitchen work, yet at its best the food at db&d was very satisfying. I enjoyed the boldness of David Burke's flavors, his mix of imagination and tradition, and his respectful veneration of meat, not always evident outside the doors of steakhouses.
New York brunch reminds me of a heartland advantage: by intelligently designing when to dine I avoid Manhattan's madding crowds, who treat the Times crossword as an austere sermon from which they are not early released.
davidburke & donatella
133 East 61st Street (between Park and Lexington)
Manhattan (Upper East Side)
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