I know this post is pretty late considering Restaurant Week ended on Labor Day but David Burke Townhouse regularly participates in RW, so hopefully people will still find my comments somewhat useful.
I had an early summer Friday from work so Josh and I met up for a RW lunch at David Burke Townhouse on the Upper East Side. Even though it was pretty late for lunch, the restaurant was surprisingly full. Fortunately we had a reservation and were seated immediately. The hallway leading to the dining room in the back was lined with colorful class balloons, and the whole restaurant had a whimsical decorating theme. I liked the tall ceilings and the bright colors, though there was still an understated elegance to the room.
Immediately after we were seated, Josh headed to the bathroom to wash up, and while he was gone, a waiter came by with the menus. As he placed the menu in front of me, he simply stated, “Here is our Restaurant Week menu.” I took a look and it seemed slightly different from the RW menu posted online, which isn’t unusual for RW, and I did see several overlapping items. When Josh came back, we decided on the dishes that we wanted to try and placed our orders. The waiter took our order without comment and walked away.
We settled in and munched on the bread we were given, a large, puffy roll that reminded me of a popover. It was light and crispy on the outside and airy and chewy on the inside. It was also piping hot, burning our fingers as we tore into it, but we absolutely loved it. The bread was accompanied by a cone of butter sitting on a pink salt slab. There was also pink salt sprinkled on the butter, providing just the right amount of saltiness. Even though Josh normally doesn’t use butter, even he couldn’t resist slathering some onto the warm bread.
For our appetizer course, Josh and I selected the watermelon salad and the pretzel crusted crab cake. The watermelon salad featured cubes of watermelon, whipped ricotta, lomo, and baby arugula. The watermelon was sweet, the ricotta was creamy, the lomo (a kind of cured ham) was salty, and the arugula was slightly bitter and peppery. All the different flavors worked perfectly together, and given that it was one of the hottest days of the summer, we appreciated the light and refreshing qualities of the salad.
The pretzel crusted crab cake was literally crusted in whole pretzel sticks. I was expecting pretzel crumbs being used in place of the normal breadcrumb filler, but this was not the case. The presentation was quite striking, though it was a bit hard to cut through the thick pretzel shell to get to the crab. Once we got to the center, there wasn’t as much crab as we hoped, and the flavor got a bit lost under all the pretzels. On its own, the crab cake was actually quite dry, though there was tomato orange chutney and poppy seed honey on the plate that helped a bit when we dragged our forks through the sauces.
For our main course, we chose the steamed mussels and the cavatelli with braised short ribs. The steamed mussels were served with coconut couscous and spicy lamb sausage. The couscous was the larger Israeli style pearls rather than the small fluffy grains we expected, but I actually prefer the chewy texture of Israeli couscous. The pearls were loose and swimming in a rich coconut broth that was flavorful and delicious – I was tempted to drink it like a soup (which I sort of did, using a mussel shell as a spoon). The lamb sausage seemed a bit out of place but it was spicy and also flavorful, though I ate it separately from the mussels. However, the mussels themselves were kind of a disappointment. They were sandy and slightly overcooked, rendering them chewy. There were also only 10 mussels in the entire serving, and one of them was closed, meaning we couldn’t eat it. It was a pretty paltry portion I thought, and if you’re only going to put 10 mussels on a plate, shouldn’t you make sure they’re all open? It’s not like they were piled on top of other; the amount didn’t even fill the bowl in a single layer.
Even with the bad mussels, Josh and I both preferred that dish to the cavatelli and short rib dish. The cavatelli was tossed with wild mushrooms in a creamy white sauce that featured truffle mousse. A huge piece of braised short rib sat on top, and there were crispy mushroom chips on the side. On paper, the dish sounded like a heavenly combination. In front of us, the dish looked delicious. In our mouths, I was thunderstruck by how a dish could possibly be both overly salty and bland at the same time. The truffle mousse barely registered, and the creamy sauce was just that, creamy, but devoid of any discernible flavor. While the cavatelli had a pleasing, chewy texture to it, even the pieces of wild mushrooms were flavorless. I think the short rib might have been the salt culprit, and I had broken it up into shreds to mix with the pasta and sauce, but the combination just didn’t meld. In theory it was a great dish – the execution, however, was horrendous. We were pretty shocked and disappointed with the dish.
For dessert, we opted for the hot strawberry shortcake sundae and the cheesecake lollipop tree. The cheesecake lollipop tree had a $10 supplement, though they will waive the supplement in lieu of two desserts (meaning two people share the tree and don’t order a second dessert). Since we really wanted to try the hot strawberry shortcake sundae, we decided to suck it up and pay the supplement. The strawberry shortcake really was hot (in temperature), and it featured spiced pound cake, slices of strawberry, honey roasted almonds, and torrone (nougat) flavored ice cream. They poured some sort of hot liquid over the pound cake that really brought out the aroma and flavor of the spices. I’m usually not a fan of spiced cake but I think it really worked well in this context. It might have been a dessert better suited for a cold winter night, not the hottest day of the summer, but the ice cream on top provided a refreshingly cool finish. Josh and I were pretty full at this point but still wanted to finish the entire bowl.
We ordered the cheesecake lollipop tree more out of curiosity than actual desire. Neither of us really love cheesecake but this is David Burke’s signature dessert so we figured we had to try it. The lollipops are beautifully presented on a custom-designed “tree.” Each lollipop is covered in a chocolate shell and dipped in chopped nuts or other little crunchies. I remember there being a white chocolate and cherry combination and a chocolate praline combination, though I think there was one more kind on the tree as well. The cheesecake inside is rich and dense, sort of like the inside of a chocolate truffle. Each lollipop was a two bite affair, and there was a bowl of whipped cream on the side for dipping. The whipped cream was actually a pleasant shock for us, as it was bubble gum flavored. A nice whimsical touch, though the bubblegum flavor didn’t necessarily go with the cheesecake pops. The dessert is definitely a novelty, but not something that I really enjoyed or would order again. I wish that a half portion was an option, since I didn’t think it was worth a $10 supplement, plus we ended up not eating most of the pops so it was kind of a waste.
So as I mentioned earlier in the post, when we received the menu, the waiter merely called it the “Restaurant Week menu” and left without any additional explanation. On the top left hand corner of the menu, there was a small box stating: “Three Course Prix Fixe $24.07 & $37.00″ The two prices were on separate lines, and the $24.07 had a symbol next to it that looked like an egg with legs and a beak. When Josh and I saw the box, we assumed the prices were for lunch and dinner, even though RW dinner is $35, not $37. We just thought they used their regular menu rather than printing separate RW menus, since it didn’t say Restaurant Week anywhere on the menu. We didn’t realize until halfway through our meal that only items on the menu with the egg symbol were included as part of the $24.07 prix fixe; all the other items without the egg would be charged ath the $37 prix fixe rate.
We only realized this because the waiter explained the difference to the table next to us, and only because they specifically asked what the symbol meant. I didn’t pay attention to the symbol when we were ordering, and I was furious that no one explained to us how the menu was set up. It was a blatant omission in my opinion, and we had chosen items from the more expensive prix fixe without knowing we had done so. At least we figured out before we got the bill, because the sticker shock might have made for an awkward conversation with the waiter. In the end, since we had chosen one “egg symbol” item and one non “egg symbol” item from each course, we were charged $24.07 for one meal and $37.00 for the other meal. Quite a markup, in my opinion, and over 50% more than we intended to spend on one of the meals.
The items that didn’t have the egg symbol were obviously the pricier/fancier dishes – the pretzel crusted crab cake and the cavatelli and short rib dish. The only reason that I didn’t argue with the waiter about his lack of explanation regarding the menu was that I might still have ordered the crab cake and the cavatelli and short rib had I known about the price supplement. Those were the most attractive dishes on the menu, not knowing that they would also be the worst dishes of our meal. But, of course, hindsight is 20/20.
However, when we were deciding on the appetizer course, Josh and I debated over ordering either watermelon salad or the pastrami salmon, another David Burke signature. The watermelon salad won out in the end, but what if we had ordered the pastrami salmon, which didn’t have the egg symbol next to it? Combine that with our steamed mussel entree, which did have the egg symbol, what would they have charged us? My guess is the more expensive $37, though perhaps if we had a conflicting order, then our waiter might finally have spoken up about the different prix fixe prices. I really don’t know, but I definitely felt kind of cheated and misled.
Overall, even without the sting of knowing that we had spent a lot more on what we expected to be a reasonable Restaurant Week lunch, we were pretty disappointed with the food at David Burke Townhouse. The bill just added insult to injury. There were definitely some bright moments – the bread was fantastic, the watermelon salad was simple and well composed, and the coconut broth and couscous in the steamed mussel dish was just delightful. However, the other dishes were good in concept but poorly executed. The hot strawberry shortcake sundae was another highlight, but the cheesecake lollipops were not our thing and not worth the extra supplement, in our opinion. Considering that an order is priced at $18 a la carte, and one tree has eight lollipops on it, that’s $2.25 per two-bite lollipop. Pretty steep I think. In the end, the meal was just mediocre, and I probably wouldn’t go back. And yes, we did tip the waiter 20% of the bill even though we were pretty upset about the situation. Like I said, I tried to justify it in my head that I probably still would have ordered the same things, and I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt that he wasn’t intentionally being misleading. But lesson learned: when in doubt about the menu or about weird symbols, ask first before ordering!
David Burke Townhouse
133 East 61st St. between Park and Lexington Ave.
New York, NY