First look: Red Salt by David Burke
by Cathy Martin | photographs by Justin Driscoll
Chef David Burke likes to have fun with food. By now, you might have seen photos on social media of his “clothesline bacon” appetizer — thick-cut, peppery, maple-glazed strips dangling deliciously from mini clothespins, served with a pair of scissors for trimming each salty-and-sweet bite. The dish is a mainstay on menus at the award-winning chef’s 18 restaurants, including two new Charlotte spots, Cloud Bar and Red Salt by David Burke. Or perhaps you’ve seen Burke’s classic chocolate-cheesecake lollipops, topped with a voluminous cloud of bubble-gum cotton candy.
The lollipops originated during Burke’s tenure at Park Avenue Café in New York City. If you had the fortune to dine at the Americana-themed upper East Side institution during its heyday in the 1990s, chances are you remember Opera in the Park, the restaurant’s whimsical signature dessert with a miniature chocolate park bench and lamppost on the plate.
“That park bench was on the cover of many a culinary magazine,” says Jeffrey Russell, executive chef at Red Salt, which opened on the ground level at uptown’s Le Méridien hotel in September in the space previously occupied by Evoke.
Bold flavors and bright, playful presentations mark the plates at Red Salt. Refreshingly, you won’t find too many ingredients on the menu that you have to Google before ordering: lobster dumplings in a miso tomato broth; tuna tartare tacos with a chipotle aioli; ginger salmon with Japanese mushrooms, bok choy, carrots and sesame snap peas. But the familiarity of the ingredients belies the complexity of the preparations, according to Russell.
“[Chef Burke’s] recipes are complex … There are many ingredients that lie deep in the flavors,” Russell says. He cites a Moroccan glaze that’s part of a lamb meatball dish at Cloud Bar, Red Salt’s sibling that opened this summer on the hotel rooftop. “There’s probably 17 spices in that recipe — star anise, some Indian spices, it’s all cooked down for six hours.”
While a majority of menu items are iterations of dishes from Burke’s other restaurants, the recipes are modified and adapted for each location. One such dish is the crackling pork shank, named Best Dish in America by USA Today in 1996. The pork is brined for three days, poached in pork and duck fat, crisped in a pan, and finished in a hot oven, yielding a tender, falling-off-the-bone texture. Though the preparation hasn’t changed much over the years, the dish is now complemented by Chef Burke’s take on vegetable fried rice.
Russell joined Red Salt in June after working for a Raleigh catering business. He’s spent much of his career in hotels, including Northview Hotel Group, which owned luxury properties including the Sanderling Inn in Duck and Jekyll Island Club on the coast of Georgia.
Burke made a name for himself in culinary circles in the early 1990s while at The River Café in Brooklyn. He’s been a recurring guest on Bravo’s hit TV cooking competition Top Chef. Now, he stays busy with his 16 restaurants (and counting), mostly in New York and his home state of New Jersey, with additional locations in Washington, D.C., and Breckenridge, Colo.
Russell brings a Southern influence to the menu, where you’ll also find steaks prepared using Burke’s patented dry-aging process — pink Himalayan salt renders the beef flavorful and tender.
On the lighter side, expect appetizers like the chilled shrimp and broccoli guacamole with carrots and crispy quinoa. The Red Salt Chicken with spinach, mushrooms and Carolina gold rice is accompanied by a sweet and tangy whole-grain mustard apricot jus. The sides here are more than an afterthought, notably the Brussels sprouts served with a bacon-onion jam and “hipster” hushpuppies, taken up a notch with shishito peppers, parmesan and chili honey butter.
On the dessert menu, along with those famous cheesecake lollipops you’ll find another Burke classic, the tin can of cake: a warm chocolate red-velvet cake served with caramel ice cream, whipped cream, chocolate sauce and Heath bar crunch. The butterscotch and banana pudding topped with crisp meringues has a silky, smooth texture and isn’t too heavy after a big meal.
The restaurant itself has been given a new look. Entering through the bar, a wall lined with salt bricks emits a soft pink glow. In the dining room, louvered partitions divide the space while keeping the room light and open. A 60-seat patio is set to open in the spring.
In keeping with the whimsical designs on the plates, a series of illustrations featuring an enchanted deck of playing cards by British artist Tony Meeuwissen adorns the walls. The artwork is inspired by traditional rhymes and fairy tales.
“It’s fun here. It’s not stuffy at all — it’s not pretentious,” Russell says. SP
Red Salt is open for dinner only Tuesday-Saturday.