FISHTAIL BY DAVID BURKE
New York, New York
The words “fish tail” conjur up images of enormous schools of fish swimming. Some of them perhaps even into the frying pans of David Burke’s kitchen. I would like to think in calling a restaurant by that name, Chef Burke isn’t just playing with food but also with words. Located on the upper East side of Manhattan, Fishtail isn’t quite sure what “tale” it wants to tell. Touted as a bar/lounge with a super fresh assortment of towering shellfish platters, it also has a variety of small dining rooms on two levels giving the diner the quintessential New York City townhouse dining experience. Problem is there is somewhat of a disconnect between the hyped-up bar scene and the only slightly calmer upstairs dining rooms. Something was missing between those two separate areas that I couldn’t quite pinpoint, a feeling perhaps that the “story” Chef Burke wanted to share with his customers was a bit convoluted.
It was the last night of restaurant week (before restaurant week was extended) and summer in the city. It was a Friday night.The weather was humid, it was raining and generally dismal. This should have made a lot of people stay home or escape to someplace else. Apparently, everyone decided eating at Fishtail that evening was going to be a far better idea.
We arrived shortly after 8:30 and the place was packed. Since we had the choice of sitting at the bar and waiting for a table to open up or standing outside to be called in (there’s no comfortable place to wait, once you’re inside you’re inside), we opted to sit at the bar. There’s a lot of activity and chatter going on in the front room. Waiters are filling drink orders as well as bringing food to people who are eating at the bar. The décor is also a bit strange, the lighting is very bright and there are icky scratchy-looking red upholstered diner booths with some sort of curvy white wallhanging behind them supposed to resemble I believe, waves or sand or something evocative of water. Some people looked like they had been there quite a while. One woman sitting in a booth had managed to twist her legs underneath her buttocks in some sort of uncomfortable looking yoga position which she however seemed to be enjoying since she was happily sipping a glass of wine.
We were at the bar for at least 25 minutes and at one point found Chef Burke standing next to us (in civvies no less and talking to some guys in suits) before an upstairs table was finally available. Upstairs was nearly as crowded as the bar but both tap water and menus were quickly brought to us.
Unlike other restaurant week menus offering one or two appetizers followed by a fish, chicken or steak entrée, Chef Burke presented a choice of four appetizers followed by three fish options, a pasta dish (also with fish), chicken and steak.
A bus boy came up to our table and offered us small baguettes or pretzel rolls.A circle of butter flavored with trendy red Hawaiian sea salt was also placed before us. Besides the restaurant week menu, the restaurant was also offering wine specials. We ordered a bottle of French Pinot that truth be told wasn’t very good. I almost never send bottles back. Tonight I did and was happier drinking a New World Pinot from Sonoma than a wine from the old country.
Settling in, Lynn started with the fried calamari served with a too sweet dipping sauce. The calamari though were tasty and greaseless. I opted for the “angry” mussels, angry I suppose because of their temperature level. They were spicy and came with a funky garlic laced oil and lemon bath that was served on the side and which I frankly only noticed when I was almost done with the dish.
The entrée I really wanted that night was the sautéed skate wing. At my local fish store, whole skate goes for about $2.99/lb. I’ve had quite a few problems eating out lately and finding that the skate dish has sold out. Tonight was no different. Lynn went with the salmon with bok choy and some sort of foam thing on top. I have to say I thought foam was passé but the salmon was so fresh and expertly cooked, it was really a beautiful piece of fish. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as happy with the striped bass provençale I ordered. The fish while decent was salt-heavy with the accompanying thick tomato, olive and caper topping.
Dessert choices included s’mores, Chef Burke’s signature cheesecake lollipops (for a supplement) or a dark berry tart. Since I don’t particularly like marshmallows and didn’t want to spring for the supplement, Lynn and I both had the berry tart. Nestled in a small tart shell were dark blueberries with an intense creamy blueberry sorbet. Dessert was so good that I actually thought it redeemed my underwhelming striped bass entrée.
For restaurant week offerings, portions were generous and service while busy managed to keep up with the crowd. Truth be told, looking at Fishtail’s regular menu, prices are a tad high so maybe Chef Burke needs to come up with a regular prix fixe menu people can enjoy during the week, a business plan that many other restauranteurs are adopting and will no doubt add a smidgen of good humor to his “tale.”