Red Salt Room
45 Seventh St., Garden City Hotel
SERVICE: Attentive and accommodating
AMBIENCE: Old and new competing; noisy
ESSENTIALS: Dinner, Monday to Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 6 to 10 p.m., Sunday brunch 11:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; reservations necessary; major credit cards accepted; wheelchair accessible
Chef David Burke, who has treated smoked salmon as pastrami and swordfish as a chop, is facing his most challenging makeover: the high-profile restaurant at the Garden City Hotel.
Burke's credits include star turns at the River Cafe and Park Avenue Cafe, establishing popular restaurants from Foxwoods to Vegas, and appearing on Food Network's "Iron Chef America" and Bravo's "Top Chef Masters." He also developed and patented a way to dry-age steak using pink Himalayan salt.
Red Salt Room is his signature redesign. Since the hotel was rebuilt and opened for the fourth time in 1983, the main restaurants have ranged from the haute French La Cote d'Or to the Italianate Giorgio, The Market Sea Grill to the clubby Rein. The peak was reached in 1990, when Ali Barker, former executive chef at the Union Square Cafe, sent out a risotto of barley in the then wall-free, lobby-side Polo Grill.
Enter Burke, taking over all food and beverage operations in mid-June, and very serious in his pursuit of whimsy. Executive chef Ari Nieminen, who excelled at the immediately preceding Polo Steakhouse, is charged with turning the vision into dinner — a ticklish task.
The dining room still has plenty of polished woodwork from earlier incarnations, while adding chunks of that Himalayan pink salt to the décor. Ornate chandeliers have given way to more modern globes. During recent visits, catering service chairs had to be drafted while planned ones are completed. The noise level is Himalaya high, compared with the steakhouse's reverent hush.
Burke's playful special effects start with "candied bacon on a clothesline." This rosemary-crowned construct suspends four thick strips that your server will briefly torch tableside and then cut with scissors. One bite or two will do unless your diet has gone totally keto.
Pastrami-smoked salmon carpaccio arrives draped on a savory "everything" waffle. It's as flavorful as it is clever. The refreshing tuna-and-salmon parfait is a little turret, with creme fraiche and couple of gaufrette potato chips. Chilled jumbo shrimp float in a gazpacho vinaigrette, tartly and soupily updating the shrimp cocktail.
But "surf-and-turf dumplings," two of beef and two of shellfish, are bland. Likewise, the pretzel-crusted crabcake, with rods of charred pretzel encasing a not-very-crabby center. Instead, try the iceberg wedge, done with brisket rather than more bacon; or the updated Cobb, headlining lobster.
In the "salt brick beef" box, bone-in rib eye, tender and well-seasoned, easily stands out. The porterhouse for two, while cooked to order, is surprisingly dull, even with Bearnaise aioli or peppercorn sauce. Roast duck: very dry. So consider the fancifully presented, slow-roasted chicken.
Burke's "angry style" lobster, a vertical show that would fit on a "Game of Thrones" set, is deftly done and definitely fired up with enough chilies. A 2-pounder also may be ordered butter-poached. Nori-crusted tuna benefits from a miso vinaigrette and an undercurrent of sesame-soy.
Onion rings are forgettable except for their appearance, stacked like a tower around a knife. Creamed spinach has the texture and appeal of refined baby food. Go for the garlic spinach and broccoli.
Ricotta doughnuts are fun, akin to cinnamon-sugar-coated golf balls that you may fill with a bourbon ganache, raspberry-rum jam, or a Grand Marnier cream. Burke's cheesecake "lollipop tree," blooming with Heath bar and other flavors, makes a bold entrance via a treelike metal stand, but looks better than it tastes. The baked Alaska, flamed tableside, is closer to burned than toasted. Coconut-banana cream pie is as boring as it is big. Afterward, you receive some soft chocolate chip cookies to go.
Fine-tuning continues daily at this theatrical restaurant. While it does, take all with, well, a grain of salt.