Jean-Georges Vongerichten has managed to open two restaurants in just a matter of weeks in March. But ABC Kitchen, with its focus on farm-fresh food has taken his full attention and is his first foray into farm-to-table dining. After previous restaurants in the space failed, ABC Carpet and Home brought in Jean-Georges to carry forth their “green” mantra. At first glance, the restaurant's decor without a doubt reflects the look of the department store in which the restaurant is housed. For some reason I had thought that this being a Jean-Georges space, the restaurant would be absolutely formal, but I was proven completely wrong. The servers’ plaid shirts, jeans, and sneakers were among the first signs that this is a casual space.
From the reclaimed light fixtures and ceiling beams to the antique and mismatched flatware and locally produced dinnerware, all signs echo the recycle, reuse, and locavore ideology that ABC Home proudly maintains. (And if you’re interested in recreating the restaurant’s look at home, all the finishes are available for purchase.) The space has a very clean, shabby-chic look that utilizes white on white and brown on brown all in an effort to be green. The floors are white washed and the chairs and tables white plastic, while the beams are rough, brown, and bulky. There is no real softness in this hard contemporary space. We were early enough in the evening that we didn’t need to worry about noisiness—a consequence of hard spaces, even though I could hear every footfall from above and below. I couldn’t help but think about George Prochnik’s article in The Daily Beast.
ABC Kitchen tries to purchase all its ingredients from local sources, from organic and sustainable farms, much like many of the restaurants in the area that follow the farm-to-table philosophy, which lately has become somewhat of a gimmick of New York restaurants. Much of the produce is locally grown by farmers who sell just blocks away in Union Square’s Greenmarket. A table named the "market table" with its own menu is positioned just by the kitchen doors, displaying that particular morning's fresh finds. The menu therefore changes almost daily, so that produce in season replaces ingredients that are no longer available. Inherently the menu stays the same except for subtleties of season. But don’t most restaurants nowadays follow this procedure? And if you hadn’t realized this restaurant's schtick by the time you’ve entered, the recycled cardboard menus make it known with an entire write-up concerning the restaurant’s philosophy and practices. But after you’ve gotten past the gimmick and have tasted the food, you soon begin to realize there might just be something brilliant there.
My gourmand friend and feminist blogger, Amanda, and I decided to try ABC Kitchen just last week on an exemplary first of May spring day. We decided to forgo our usual alcohol consumption since it was a rather hot day, which already had us tired—and combined with my allergy medication, one drink would have put me right out. Luckily ABC has a nice selection of house-made sodas, something that I’ve never seen on a restaurant menu. It was suggested to us after we stated we would take no alcohol. We ordered the ginger-lemon and basil-lime sodas. They were both very good drinks and I was enamored with the basil-lime concoction. I truly do think that basil makes an excellent pairing with sweet profiles.
The menu features an excellent selection of fish, such as bass, arctic char, and cod. For me fish dishes at any of Jean-Georges’ restaurants are usually the best and most enjoyable. There’s something magical about the chef’s handling of seafood. Flavors are always spectacular, sometimes subtle and layered, other times robust and umami. I ordered the raw shaved fluke with grapefruit segments and tarragon for an appetizer. The previous menu paired the fluke with blood oranges—too bad the season is over. Drizzled with olive oil and dusted with pepper, the dish is a simple and refreshing start to dinner. And I couldn't have enjoyed it more than I did by sopping up all the juices with extra bread. Obviously I let my manners slide here, but I was feeling casual.
The restaurant’s pork comes from upstate New York's Flying Pigs Farm, which has a very popular stand at the market. Amanda, by my goading, ordered the pan-seared pork terrine. As soon as the dish came out, we thought the server brought us the wrong dish, because it looked like deep-fried hamburgers. I commented that they looked just like my mom’s Hungarian fasírt. But it was in fact the terrine, a full-flavored and slightly salty terrine with all the right porky notes, perfectly paired with peppery arugula and sherry vinaigrette. How did I not order it for myself?
We both decided to order fish dishes for our entrées. I knew before I set foot in the place that I’d order fish. It was just a question of which fish to order, so I posed it to our friendly server. She highly recommended the sautéed arctic char with crispy skin coated in garlic crumbs. The fish was lean and meaty—it felt as though I was eating a steak. I've had arctic char many times before, but this was one of my favorite preparations of it. Here it was paired with simply sautéed broccoli rabe. The previous menu paired it with romanesco. The black bass with red potatoes and spinach in broth was what the server called, a signature Jean-Georges dish. The broth was absolutely the best and most flavorful part of the dish. It had that umami quality that hit all spots of the palate. Luckily a spoon was provided, which I didn't hesitate in taking from Amanda.
Specials of the day are specifically chosen from fresh, locally available ingredients. The day of my visit had fiddlehead ferns and ramps on the menu. I've never eaten fiddlehead ferns and hadn't seen them at the market this season at all, probably because the chefs buy them all up before I get to the market. The fiddleheads were roasted in the wood oven with just garlic and scallions. They tasted of spring, as they should. The ramps were offered as an appetizer of ramp pesto on bruschetta or a pasta course of freshly made cavatelli with ramps and peas. I could have easily ordered all the specials that day, but didn’t want to take it overboard. Trying fiddleheads for the first time was a just-enough highlight.
I can never leave an establishment without at least attempting to eat dessert even though we were both entirely full by this point, barely able to finish our entrées. Desserts are offered ranging from toasted oat buttermilk pannacotta to salted caramel ice cream and there are standby selections of carrot or chocolate cake and lemon, pear, or apple tart. The chocolate cake was by all means a typical chocolate cake, not unlike a good box mix. What made it atypical was the gooey toasted marshmallow frosting. The cake was light and fluffy and rather moist. It was a safe-choice dessert. What really stole the show was the plate of caramel-filled doughnuts. I haven't had good doughnuts since the beignets at the Bar Room. I have since held all doughnuts to that standard. So I made sure to ask the server about the quality of their doughnuts prior to ordering. These were airy, cloudy, and sugary. Each doughnut was a soft sponge of perfectly fried dough, rolled in fine sugar, and filled with sweet oozing caramel. I dove right in with my face covered in sugar. I could have eaten a platter full. I didn't even need the chocolate sauce at all! The original menu paired the doughnuts with blood orange marmalade, which would have been the better match.
At ABC Kitchen, once you get past the "green" rustic-chic décor and the slightly gimmicky farm-to-table philosophy, you’re really only left with very good food with very good flavors, highlighting fresh produce from exceptional farmers. Here the ingredients speak volumes, louder than even the noisiness of the dining room. Try a dish from that day's specials menu or the regular menu and you will see that every effort has been made to bring out the naturalness of the produce or product without disguising it or unrecognizably manipulating it. The food is simple, palate pleasing, and truly soul satisfying all from a chef-master in the kitchen.
35 East 18th Street, between Broadway and Park Avenue
New York, NY 10003
Open daily for dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. and Friday through Saturday, 5:30 to 11:30 p.m.
Appetizers range in price from $8 to $13 and entrées from $21 to $35.