Chef Thomas Burke

Perfecting Le Poisson

By Cindy Clarke

The food of France has long been considered at the top of the culinary chain, delighting palates with pâtes, patisserie, poulet and poisson, freshly sourced, richly flavored, elegantly prepared and meticulously plated. From Michelin-starred restaurants run by chefs who have perfected dishes delicately sauced and seasoned to perfection to aspiring cooks like Julia Child who made French fare an American obsession to foodies like me who find a taste of joie de vivre in every bite, the allure of dining like the French do is more than a fleeting fancy.

“It’s become a lifestyle,” Chef Thomas Burke remarked as we sat down to dinner at Le Poisson, where seafood stars on his reimagined French menu. By its very nature, French cuisine, full of flavor and high-quality ingredients, is deemed a healthier way to eat, in large part because it shuns processed foods in favor of anything fresh and natural. In explaining his focus on seafood, Burke said “Fish is a little lighter, a little healthier and I have a passion for cooking seafood. Rather than being a classic French restaurant, now we’re a French seafood restaurant.”

New on the culinary scene, Le Poisson makes its home in the historic 1750 white clapboard house that La Crémaillère, for decades one of the finest French restaurants in the country, occupied since it opened in 1937. As fate would have it, Chef Burke manned its kitchen from 2022 to 2024, garnering accolades from the prestigious Michelin Guide for his “clear reverence for ingredients” and for bringing a “delicious balance to the fore with imagination and razor-sharp execution.” In March of 2024, the chef had the well-deserved opportunity to rebrand both the restaurant and his role, becoming managing partner and chef extraordinaire of the new dining venue.

Throwing his hands and heart into the restaurant ring as a teenager at age 14, Thomas Burke learned the finer points of French haute cuisine from the best in the business, working alongside the inspiring, award-winning chefs at Le Bernardin, Blue Hill, French Laundry, the Charlie Palmer Group and other equally acclaimed restaurants. “They changed the way I thought about cooking.” His meteoric rise among their ranks attests not only to his passion for perfection in preparing dishes impossible to resist, it also speaks volumes about his sensibilities and skills when it comes to the entire dining experience.

French cooking, classic and complex, stands on traditions centuries old. Quality and fresh seasonal ingredients are important components, as is creating food that doubles as a work of art. But it’s the culinary techniques – sauces and seasonings that seduce, roux that elevates recipes, julienned vegetables and ribboned chiffonade, flavorful deglacers, sautes and coulis, among them – that set a fearless French chef like Thomas Burke apart from the rest.

So that guests experience an authentic sense of place during a night out at Le Poisson, the dining room welcomes with original painted murals that were a mainstay of La Crémallière, transporting them to the coastal regions of France as they sample seafood fresh from la mer and served on Limoges porcelain plates. Wood beamed ceilings and stone fireplaces, meticulously refreshed, recall the restaurant’s 18th-century farmhouse heritage. The rich ocean blue carpeting and upholstered chairs reflect the chef’s favorite color while paying tribute to the iconic seascapes of France.

Then there’s his food, the best way to feel like you are dining somewhere in France. Take the amuse bouche that started off our meal. In France, the term “amuse bouche” literally means something that “amuses the mouth.” In French restaurants like Le Poisson, they take the form of surprise hors d’oeuvres, just a bite or two, personally selected by the chef to please patrons and tease their palate with sensations of tastes yet to come.

Ours was a delicate hamachi tartare, a puff of melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness, topped with a cloud of avocado mousse and flavored with cilantro, wasabi tobiko and cucumber-ginger emulsion. We toasted chef’s creativity with a glass of strawberry-garnished sparkling rose, sommelier suggested.

Next up was a French kiss golden oyster, served in its shell, crowned with imperial caviar and chive blossoms and dressed with a citrus emulsion that made us pucker up with pleasure. Red snapper crudo followed, bathing each slender strip in togarashi and ponzu vinaigrette, and kissing them with crispy shallots and the avocado mousse that sent our taste buds to heaven a few bites before.

Much to our delight, chef Burke came out to check on us with every course, sharing insights and anecdotes that enriched our dinner even more. Most of his seafood, he shared, is sourced the same day from the clean cold waters off of Maine, world famous for its premium, great tasting and sustainable fish, lobsters included. Not so for the langoustine galette we devoured next.

Gently seared with foie gras, morels, asparagus and mushroom jus, the langoustine we were served hailed from Norway. A shrimpy relative of the lobster, it has a sweet mild taste that paired perfectly with the spring onions, baby corn and curried broth the chef added to this dish, simply making it one of our fast favorites of the night.

Part of the allure of fine French dining is the white glove service, impeccably orchestrated and personally rewarding, you traditionally experience in restaurants like this. At Le Poisson, it begins with long-time maître d’ John Parra who instinctively caters to your every wish and includes silver domed presentations at the changing of each course, when each dish is synchronistically revealed by the wait staff who carry it from the kitchen, piping hot and elegantly plated. This lost art has found an appreciative home and audience here.

“What grows together, goes together,” the chef said when he explained how he creates inventive dishes for his menus, in particular for the Chef’s Tasting Menu we had chosen. “French food is all about using farm fresh ingredients, from herbs to seasonal vegetables and fruit, pairing them together with seafood, duck, lamb and filet in recipes, garnishes and sauces for a burst of local flavor, creatively inspired.”

We experienced it in our turbot-charged entrée that was accompanied by baby leeks, morels and white asparagus, exquisitely topped with brown butter, and our Dover Sole, a signature classic, resting on a bed of classic French ratatouille.

No French-inspired dinner is complete without sweets, and freeing us from the decision of what to choose, we were treated to a quartet of decadent desserts, petite macarons, rhubarb soufflé, Crème brûlée and Mill-Feuille (puff pastry) made on premises by the restaurant’s talented pastry chef, Salvador Mallma. Did we mention the oven-warm, hand-crafted bread he also made that we lathered with sweet butter throughout our meal?

Appetites sated, we wanted to linger a little bit longer so we made our way to the Petit Salon at the front of the house. Picture perfect in a palette of blue, the chef designed this as a living room lounge, an inviting, intimate place for patrons to relax with an aperitif or an after-dinner drink, or a cozy café to indulge their craving for top-shelf caviar, served with house made blini, crème fraiche, chives and a glass of champagne, oysters impossibly fresh, a seafood tower of lobster, shrimp and oysters, or a selection of timeless dishes, informally served and ultimately sensational.

Chef Thomas joined us as we reminisced about the night, our culinary travels and our favorite finds in the restaurant world, both here and abroad. We were delighted to tell him that Le Poisson is now among the best of them.