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Behind the Line: Fish, steakhouse-style
New York's Fishtail is David Burke's lucky No. 7
By Lauren Kramer
October 01, 2010
When David Burke opened Fishtail in December 2008, the well-known New York City restaurateur had a clearly defined goal for his seventh eatery. "This was my first seafood restaurant, and I wanted it in a steakhouse concept," he says. "The steakhouse is a simple way of thinking and eating, and as with a diner, there's a comfort level for guests, because they know what they're getting."
Burke trained at the Culinary Institute of America and worked at River Café in New York City before opening the Park Avenue Café with Alan Stillman, CEO of Smith & Wollensky, in 1992. He served as president of culinary development for the Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group from 1996 and opened his first restaurant, now known as David Burke Townhouse, in 2003.
Located in the Upper East Side, Fishtail is a two-level restaurant with a bar, raw bar and open kitchen downstairs and elegant dining room upstairs. The color scheme is coral-red, the décor is upscale with blown glass pieces and Andy Warhol artwork on the walls, and the meals are deliberately eye catching.
"The dishes can't help but attract diners' attention," says Burke, referring to the shellfish tower, a three-tier appetizer with lobsters, shrimp, mussels, oysters, clams, sea urchins and periwinkles. Whole-roasted fish emerges from the kitchen in a copper pan or casserole dish and is boned in the dining room.
"It's a little bit of showmanship and a nice technique that adds to the fun atmosphere at Fishtail," he says. "This is not a stuffy, pretentious restaurant but a place with a good human energy. It's one of those restaurants that makes people talk."
When Fishtail first opened, Burke had every intention of offering exclusively sustainably harvested seafood. But he quickly realized it would be too expensive, and too limiting.
"Today we average 80 percent sustainable seafood," he says. "We want flexibility to serve items that aren't [certified] sustainable. Also, we weren't getting bang for the buck, going 100 percent sustainable with our seafood choices. We didn't get a lot of ink on it, and though a few customers asked questions, I didn't think they were coming because of our sustainability commitment. They were coming because the food is good."
Burke offers up to 25 species of seafood at any one time at Fishtail. Diners can choose from six species of "whole and simple fish," served with sauces like Asian mushroom vinaigrette, citrus herb and caper herb, with sides of their choice. Or they can opt for one of Burke's composed dishes, such as swordfish "steak frites," a pan-seared Alaska halibut "T-bone," roasted Mayan prawns on paella and pan-roasted diver scallops. Half the guests choose composed dishes, says Burke, but the majority of Asian diners opt for whole and simple fish.
"People like the fact that it's healthy, low-maintenance and that they can be in charge of what's on the plate if they want to be. It gives them the freedom to choose," he says. For those who don't like seafood, Fishtail offers roast chicken and dry-aged rib eye, but the restaurant only serves one or two of these dishes each night. Some of Burke's seafood comes from Singularis, a company vessel out of New Jersey that catches 200 pounds a week of tuna, mahimahi and wahoo in the spring and summer. The rest he sources from distributors including Meat Without Feet in the Hunts Point market in the Bronx.
The debut of Fishtail coincided with the economic recession, forcing Burke to add value-driven strategies like a $10 burger night featuring a lobster roll, tuna burger and beef burger, an appetizer hour and some prix fixe menus. But in addition to his cuisine, Burke's name also gave him an edge over other new restaurants that opened at the same time. The celebrity chef was inducted into the Who's Who of Food & Beverage in America by the James Beard Foundation last year, and has developed a reputation as a culinary prankster for dishes like his cheesecake lollipops and the Fishtail "Can o' Cake," a molten chocolate cake baked in a cookie can.
Next on this entrepreneur's to-do list is a farm-to-table restaurant, opening in Soho this fall. For now, though, he's enjoying the success of Fishtail. "I'm shocked and surprised by how much people like fish," says Burke. "We have people coming back two or three times a week to eat our fish."
Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia