Legendary chef David Burke is a man with opinions. He is, for starters, ready to declare that restaurants are officially—“finally,” he says—entering the post-“weird shit” era of dining, having moved on from things like pig’s ears in favor of more universally appealing eats. “Nobody says, ‘Honey, let’s go out and get a sweetbread steak,’” he says. He also believes restaurants are becoming too pricey.
“Whenever I open a restaurant,” says Burke, “I try to keep things as affordable as possible. Unlike some other people, we’re not trying to bang anybody over the head.”
Still, Burke reserves his most impassioned words for what he sees as the increasing egotism of chefs. “They show off too much,” he says. “I don’t need to be wowed by some ingredient that was picked off the mountainside by a blind monk with a palsy. I don’t need to be a part of some chef’s ego-driven journey. I say this after years of experience; it’s just too much. I cook what people want to eat.”
If it sounds like David Burke would fit in nicely on Long Island—a veritable breeding ground for loveable loudmouths—it’s because he already has. He opened two new restaurants here—Red Salt Room and King Bar, both located within the Garden City Hotel—this spring.
And while the restaurants are Burke’s first foray into the Long Island restaurant scene, they also signal something of a reunion: The project has reunited him with executive chef Ari Nieminen, with whom he worked closely at Brooklyn’s River Café in the late 1980s.
“I feel more confident knowing he is at the helm,” says Burke, just days before the restaurants’ opening. “He knows what to expect from me and I know what to expect from him.”
But what can guests expect from their restaurants? Excellence, for starters—thanks largely to their menu’s balance of Burke’s signature whimsy and more standard steakhouse fare. At Red Salt Room, the more elegant of the two new eateries, for example, Burke’s legendary pretzel-crusted crab cake is offered as an appetizer right alongside a traditional iceberg wedge, just as his much-celebrated angry-style lobster—prepared with garlic, lemon, chiles and basil—appears as an entrée beside more familiar beef offerings, like filet mignon, bone-in ribeye, sirloin, and a porterhouse for two.
At King Bar, Red Salt Room’s more casual sister-restaurant open for all-day dining, guests can enjoy breakfast, small plates and large plates, with all three menus reflecting a similar Burkean balance. Don’t leave without trying the Candied Bacon on a Clothesline—which is (thankfully) exactly what it sounds like; don’t even try resisting the urge to snap a pic and share it on Instagram—and the chef’s signature sweet: cheesecake lollipops, served whimsically as branches stemming from a plated metal tree.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel. Garden City has always been a world-class place and we’re just adding to that,” says Burke. “You know, I have a good understanding of what’s out here. I’ve eaten at Guy Reuge’s places in the past. The late Gerry Hayden [who opened the North Fork Table & Inn with his wife Claudia Fleming in 2006] was one of my sous chefs. There are a lot of great places out here. Our goal is simple: To be great, too.”
Here, Burke pauses to laugh, charmingly, before offering one last view.
“I mean, I’ve been doing this for 34 years. If you’re not capable of doing great things in your field after 34 years, you’re in the wrong field. I’m sorry; there’s just no helping you.”