Jean-Georges Vongerichten, one of the few big-name New York chefs who has not gone full speed ahead into locally-sourced, organic cuisine, finally throws his hat into the ring with ABC Kitchen. The result could be called Fusion Cuisine 2.0: Send a talented French chef trained in Asia to the Union Square Greenmarket, where American sugar snap peas, Latin peppers and artisanal meat all vie for your attention, and you never know what new creation will land on the table.
Behind the minimalist exterior, the restaurant space itself, on the south side of the giant ABC Home store in the Flatiron district, is wonderfully inviting, slightly formal in an aristocratic country-home sort of way, but not at all stuffy. Mismatched china, antique silverware grace the simple white lacquered tables under the old exposed beams overhead. The buzzy but low-key atmosphere was just sceney enough to be interesting but not distracting.
Marie Fromage and I were more tempted by the appetizers than many of the entrees; when you’re craving seasonal cuisine in the first throes of spring, the vegetable-heavy appetizers in most seasonal restaurants are more likely to deliver. It was immediately apparent from the amuse bouche – pristine, just-picked baby radishes at the height of their season – that the attention to detail that characterizes Vongerichten’s best restaurants would carry over here.
Those sugar snap peas got the royal treatment in the sugar snap salad ($12). Barely blanched, then julienned and tossed with a parmesan-Dijon dressing, radicchio and endive, they had the sweet crunch of a Thai salad with the familiar taste of our own local spring produce.
Wild mushrooms on mushroom crostini are usually sauteed, so what a surprise to see that the Asian technique of steaming them could elicit such intense, delicious woodsy flavor on ABC Kitchen’s nicely charred, fragrant steamed mushroom toast ($9).
Not all experiments here succeed. A batter made with ground Martin’s Pretzels from the greenmarket rendered the fried calamari ($10) leaden. Lighter is better when it comes to batter flours. Not even the accompanying bright tomato sauce could perk these calamari up.
Fittingly, one of the most sublime dishes we tried here was the chicken liver toast ($8), which in Vongerichten’s capable hands, gets elevated to foie gras status. In this pate, we could taste the usual suspects like cognac, but most intriguing were the American ingredients thrown into the mix. Mint and maybe even a drizzle of honey morphed this French country standard into its northeast U.S. cousin.
The gorgeous presentation of shaved fluke ($13) with olive oil, blood orange and cracked pepper distracted us from the fact that this dish was not quite local and more in line with Vongerichten’s other restaurants. This vibrant dish would have really excelled with just the tiniest sprinkling of fleur de sel, but the quality of the ingredients here spoke for itself.
These small plates shown so far already amounted to a lot of food, but it was positively overwhelming when they were delivered to our two-top nearly all at once by a variety of waiters. As Andrea Thompson noted recently in the New Yorker, there’s already a clash between tiny New York City table real estate and massive number of the small plates that land on it. Restaurants should at least make sense of a small plates menu by pacing the courses for you – as they did to excellent effect at Faustina.
A few ventures into Italian territory weren’t as dazzling as the rest of the menu. The light and airy texture of housemade ricotta ravioli with herbs and tomato sauce ($13) couldn’t make up for the comforting but not very exciting flavor overall – if some Italian pastas are puttanesca, this one was a shrinking violet.
Whole wheat pizzas: I do not endorse the use of whole wheat flour in pizza, but in this case, it suited the restaurant’s greenmarket theme. Here it was not the authenticity of the pizza but the clever combination of toppings that set ABC Kitchen’s clam pizza ($16) apart. Clams, mint, parsley and fresh chilies were a vibrant mix that reflected the multicultural aspects of local ingredients here: the chilies were actually jalapenos, and they seemed right at home next to the mint.
Whatever happens, save room for dessert. A redonculous caramel-peanut ice cream and candied popcorn sundae ($8) was worth breaking any diet. Seriously rich but not too sweet, it got a grown-up edge from the hint of saltiness at the finish.
The meal, including a $48 bottle of Chateau de Maltroye Bourgogne, set us back $75 apiece before tip. Not cheap by downtown standards, but definitely worth the price for a meal by Jean Georges in a location not yet overrun by Sex and the City tourists. If Carrie were still glamming about town today, she would doubtless land at ABC Kitchen. Let’s hope she never visits this place – in a movie, at least. The best way to maintain the unassuming chic and market-driven hits here would be to keep it local.
35 East 18th Street (between Broadway and Park Avenue)
New York, NY