Long before he was a celebrity chef, David Burke was a paper boy who delivered The Star-Ledger on a route near his childhood home in Hazlet.
“The Sunday paper was a bear,” Burke remembers. “And every time it rained or snowed, my dad would have to pull out the station wagon and help us.”
Now Burke regularly graces our pages and countless others, and his latest venture is another full-circle moment: The Drifthouse, inside the Driftwood Cabana Club on the sand in Sea Bright, is a homecoming.
Monmouth County is where Burke used to hitchhike to Sandy Hook. (He would wrap his foot in an ACE bandage and bring a crutch — “I’d get picked up in minutes!”) He was once a lifeguard. And this is the stomping grounds where he first fell in love with cooking, washing dishes at fish restaurants along Route 36.
“In Monmouth County, people want to have a good time,” Burke says. “They want good food. Usually, they walk in in a good mood. There’s a sense that people seem to be happy when they’re down here, and I feel that connection to the people.”
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The executive chef here is Burke’s younger brother, Robert, who was at the helm in the space’s former concept, Ama, an Italian restaurant.
What’s it like working with your baby brother?
“I was so tough on him,” Burke says of the many years his brother worked in his restaurants. “But after batting him around and firing him and him quitting, we finally looked at each other now and said, we’ve got a good opportunity here. Let’s do something great. I came in only with his permission.”
The two did a wine dinner together at Ama in November that started the conversation about reinventing the restaurant, which was already well-regarded.
The transformation happened nearly overnight after they decided on the menu and decor: Ama closed on a Sunday in February and reopened as the Drifthouse on Tuesday.
The cuisine is meant to be affordable for a quick bite, and approachable — less stuffy than the legendary Fromagerie in Rumson, two miles away, which Burke ran for years.
Sure, you could splurge like we did. (Our total bill for two with apps, entrees, desserts, a few cocktails and tip was $288.84.)
Or you could sit at the bar and have a burger ($14), a few oysters ($3 each) and a glass of wine (there’s a lengthy list) and stay under $50.
“We said, we’re on the beach here,” Burke explains. “We don’t need foie gras and truffles and caviar all over the menu. Let’s do modern American food and at a good price.”
To update the space, Burke says, his crew worked to “get rid of some of the heaviness,” ripped down curtains, painted walls white and added art from nearby Detour gallery in Red Bank. A giant portrait of Jimi Hendrix hangs behind the bar. Exposed ceiling rafters and dark wood bring it all back to earth.
Window tables, where we sat, overlook the pool and the ocean. Watching the kids jump off the diving board — and the waves crashing on the beach — made for dinner and a show.
There’s also a smaller room, rentable for events, and an outdoor seating area if you’d like to take in the salt air.
The bacon that will ruin all other bacon for you, forever
My first thought on the bacon appetizer ($19) — cheap move, David Burke. Thrust bacon in front of me, hanging from a clothesline, picture perfect, pepper-flecked, gleaming, beckoning. I see you.
Our waiter, Michael, showed us how to properly eat from this contraption: Hold a piece with a clothespin, cut off however much you want with the provided scissors. Gimmicky, I thought. I joked that I planned to just put my face under it. Then I tried the scissors and realized this is, actually, probably the best way to do it.
I can hardly put into words what this bacon tasted like. Juicy, fatty, yet crunchy, thick slices covered in a sweet-but-not-too-sweet maple glaze. Bits of rosemary torched alongside it. I had visions of my own personal heaven, sitting poolside downstairs as someone just brought out more and more. And cocktails. (Try the Esta Bien – $14: Patron Reposado, honey, blood orange, deliciousness.)
Burke claims “it’s the most copied dish in the U.S. right now,” what with it being so perfectly Instagram-able, and he could be right. (Seriously, Google it.) He came up with the clothesline idea after hanging fruit leather to dry from a clothesline for another dish a long time ago.
(P.S.: Three days later, I had another maple bacon app at a well-loved restaurant in Princeton, hoping to recreate the experience and feed the addiction Burke started in me. It didn’t come close.)
If you take nothing else from this review, take this: Get the bacon. Get the bacon. Get. The. Bacon.
A few more apps
Next up, since we were at the seashore, mussels ($16). These are a carryover from the Ama menu and a straightforward kind of dish, Burke says. They were a great opener, with a bright and peppy tomato sauce, even if overshadowed by the bacon.
We then shared the Drift salad ($20), which could be a meal on its own with all that’s packed in: thin slices of prosciutto, asparagus, watermelon, burrata, tomatoes, olives, topped with two shrimp and a balsamic vinaigrette.
It was crisp and fresh and filling and would make a perfect seaside lunch, if only the Drifthouse served lunch. (They open for dinner at 4 p.m.)
Burke says the two other salads on the menu are more popular because it seems like there’s a lot going on in this salad, but the people who have had it rave.
“I love it,” he says. “The saltiness of the olives and prosciutto. I’ve got tomatoes and watermelon to get the sweet. Some fatty cheese and crunchy asparagus. And then I’ve got shrimp cocktail!”
Art on a plate
Burke loves art. He has his own collection. He’s tried glass-blowing and would really take it up it if he had the time. He says he “sucks” at painting and doesn’t have patience for anything where the gratification is too delayed.
Learning to play the piano would be torture. So would wine-making. But plating, that’s his art.
He thinks back to his first chef job at the River Café in Brooklyn, where he felt the pressure of competing with the chefs who ran the place before him and all the other chefs in the city — and the pressure of how to grab the attention of the publicists and the food writers who stick to Manhattan.
“How do you stand out when you can all buy the same ingredients and you can all cook with the same things?” he says. “So I picked that as a vehicle – presentation. Let’s take some chances. Let’s be artistic. Let’s get playful, and let’s get recognized.”
For entrees, my companion chose the octopus and scallops ($29), and when it arrived, the dish looked almost too perfect, too poised, too carefully arranged to eat. A “vera cruz” sauce of tomatoes, capers and jalapeño vinaigrette was the canvas. Black squid ink tuiles completed the painting.
The scallops were buttery delicious, and the octopus, which can be a scary bite to the unadventurous, was tender and just plain yummy, especially in the sauce. (If you’ve never had octopus, try it here.) It’s a lighter dish that wouldn’t have been filling enough if you don’t order an appetizer, I mean, the bacon.
Is this the best steak around?
It wouldn’t be a David Burke restaurant without steak. Burke patented his own salt-aging process – read more about it here – and ever so subtly includes the patent number on the menu and salt bricks on the table.
I chose the 18-ounce prime salt-aged Kansas City bone-in sirloin ($55). (Say that five times fast.) Other options? A 34-ounce prime salt-aged porterhouse for two ($110), an 8-ounce wet-aged filet mignon ($36) and a 14-ounce wet-aged ribeye Delmonico ($39).
The steaks are trucked in from Allen Brothers in Chicago, who helped Burke bring his salt-brick dry-aging cave to life.
The presentation on my ribeye was simple, with just an arugula salad, seasoned with a little rendered beef fat, all as if to say, no tricks necessary here.
It melted in my mouth with a crispy char on the outside, perfectly cooked and impossibly marbled. It needed nothing, but I enjoyed adding a dab of Burke’s signature B1 steak sauce on the waiter’s suggestion.
“We buy the best meat and age it under my patented method, and we sell it to you at the right price — if you tried you couldn’t get a better steak,” Burke says. “I’m not really bragging. I’m just stating a fact.”
He says it’s like the bacon, hopefully the next time you have a steak, “you’re gonna remember us.”
“Our philosophy – whether it be a steak or a martini – is just give them the best quality and don’t mess with it too much,” Burke says.
You don’t have to be a hipster to eat Hipster Fries
I don’t regret ordering the hipster fries ($8)— big crunchy corkscrew cuts covered in shishito peppers, bacon, parmesan — but fries seem like such a waste of stomach space when there’s so much else on the menu. They’re addictive enough to screw up your pacing.
Why “hipster” in, oh, ritzy Sea Bright? The name is a carryover from his three NYC spots, where he once topped them with beef jerky. The twisty shape makes shelves to hold all the fixin’s, the same way radiator pasta holds sauce, Burke explains.
“I was trying to do something for millennials of Brooklyn,” he says with a laugh. “If I called them parmesan chili fries, that’s not good enough. They are kind of hip, ya know?”
Do you know what “Cake by the Ocean” means? David Burke does.
For dessert, I couldn’t resist the Cake by the Ocean ($13): The base was like a chocolate chip cookie-cake hybrid. It’s topped with a sliver of meringue, and the sliver is topped with sea salt caramel ice cream, and the ice cream is topped with a big triangle of chocolate like a party hat. The meringue, I quickly realized, was there to keep the ice cream from turning to soup over the warm cake. Genius.
“I was in Hawaii at the Food & Wine Festival and that song kept playing and I couldn’t understand what they were singing, so I asked a girl, who told me,” Burke says.
Then, as he was naming the desserts while overlooking the Atlantic, he said, perfect. Cake by the ocean.
“Do you know what ‘cake by the ocean’ means?” I ask Burke cautiously, thinking about how someone had to explain it to me.
“Sex?” he guesses. (It’s sex on the beach.)
With a name like that, it better be good. And it was. Even full as we both were (and my poor dining partner facing a wedding dress just fitting days away), we ate the whole damn thing.
“The next version is going to be called Better Than Cake By the Ocean!” Burke joked.
We also tried the creamsicle crème brulee ($10), which was lovely, if less over-the-top. (I’m a sucker for a flavored crème brulee after so many iterations of vanilla bean.)
Surviving the winter
The service was impeccable. (Of course it was.) It’s the high-class kind of place where they use that crumb catcher knife thing that always makes me feel like a giant slob but also like I’m out at a high-class kind of place.
The true test starts now: After a busy summer, can a seashore restaurant survive the winter? Even with a big name behind it?
Burke thinks so. And he has lots planned to draw folks in: Wine dinners. A chef’s table. Blind-folded tastings. (Watch out, he’s big on cricket pizza lately.)
“I’m very keen on doing things in New Jersey,” he says. “The clientele is willing to spend, educated, and they want to eat. New York is New York, and it’s always going to be New York, but I don’t want to cross a bridge every day when I get a little older.”
Besides, he thinks the beach is just as magical in the winter, if not quite as majestic as it is in the summer. His says his retirement plan includes a dock here somewhere and a boat where he’ll drink his morning coffee.
I ask him to give me his come-on-down pitch.
“You should come on down and sit in a beautiful dining room on the ocean, overlooking the marina and eat some world-class food at the right price,” he says. “Even in the winter. I love the beach in winter. It’s such a reminder of Mother Nature. Of quietness. And you’ll eat well. So come say hi.”