When movie stars need a little extra cash, they make commercials in foreign markets—Lost in Translation–style—and no one back home is the wiser. Some celebrity chefs apply the same principle when consulting. But David Burke, the acclaimed maverick who cooked under Charlie Palmer at the River Café and then made it big at davidburke & donatella, committed one fatal gaffe with his latest client: He let the bawdy Hawaiian Tropic Zone paste his glossy mug next to the menu it displays in Times Square. What the hell was he thinking?
The restaurant satisfies a need I didn’t know New Yorkers had, functioning somewhere between Hooters and a strip joint. Bikini-clad women will answer all your questions about the Hawaiian-inspired surf-and-turf menu when they aren’t competing in beauty pageants, promenading across an elevated glass catwalk, numbered like cattle. Customers decide who they like best by depositing tableside ballots into a box; the winner gets $100.
Ridiculous? Sure. But Dennis Riese, who owns 100 New York–area chain-restaurant outlets (including KFCs and T.G.I. Friday’s) and Adam Hock (who owns the Meatpacking District’s PM club) sunk a reported $11 million into the concept and recruited some other big names to help, too. They convinced fashion queen Nicole Miller to design the bikini tops and sarongs, and architect Jeffrey Beers to oversee the construction of the 16,000-square-foot, bi-level interior. Aside from a waterfall near the entrance, the place looks more like a Vegas sports-betting parlor than a Hawaiian dreamscape; 15 television screens are mounted above the long bar, showing endless girls-in-paradise loops and sports clips.
Burke was vice president of culinary development at the Smith & Wollensky chain for a decade, so he knows something about creating mass-market food—and how to sell meat. But the execution of the dishes by head chef Joel Reiss tasted like they came from a war zone, not a tropic zone. The signature item, an enormous $35 reinterpretation of the classic Asian pupu platter, featured overcooked filet mignon, dry chicken breast, Slim Jim–like chorizo and doughy fantail shrimp that tasted like defrosted Mrs. Paul’s (chicken drumsticks, oddly served on skewers, were the sole highlight).
I detected a fishiness in many of the aquatic dishes. There it was in the $15 crab cake. It popped up again in the tuna entrée, which was wrapped in seaweed and then dreadfully overcooked—though it was served over a lovely bed of macadamia nuts and avocado cubes. Burke also appears to have adapted the famous crackling pork shank he created at Maloney & Porcelli, and simply added tropical fruit sauce instead of the traditional apple sauce. It was dry, but then again I thought the original was dry (the shrimp fried rice it sat upon, however, was tasty).
Sauces, marinades, desserts and cocktails all tasted overly sweet. If that sounds good, you’ll love the cheesecake lollipops with bubblegum-flavored whipped cream—another hit originally served elsewhere (at davidburke & donatella). The wine list, sadly, does not save the day. The pricing was absurd: Half the bottles hit triple digits, and there wasn’t a single offering I could recommend at the fees they were demanding.
Ultimately, at a human zoo like this, the quality of the food just doesn’t matter. Another Tropic Zone is already slated to open next year inside the new Planet Hollywood hotel in Las Vegas. And Maxim magazine recently announced plans for its own steakhouse in New York. What’s next? Daniel Boulud paying homage to topless St. Tropez? The mind reels; the palate just gives up.