35 East 18th St, New York NY 10003 (b/n Broadway and Park Avenue South; map); 212-475-5829; abckitchennyc.net
Service: Friendly, welcoming
Setting: A study in ritualized locavore elegance and informality. (The watistaff wears biodegradable sneakers.)
Must-Haves: Sweet pea soup, mackerel sashimi, roast carrot and avocado salad, kasha and bowtie pasta
Cost: $50 and up for 2-3 courses
How many Jean-Georges Vongerichtens are there? In this age of downsizing and retrenchment, he has managed to open not one, but two serious restaurants in New York in the last two months—The Mark Restaurant by Jean-Georges, in the Mark Hotel, and ABC Kitchen. How he has done so is beyond me.
The Mark seems to be a kind of best-of-Jean-Georges in a hotel restaurant, one that will probably succeed in being a canteen for neighbohood bankers and hedge funders. ABC Kitchen particularly intrigues me because he is focusing on local and organic food, and artisanal food purveyors, in what is, for him, a reasonably priced restaurant. In the words on its own menu, it's dedicated to "presenting a changing menu that is locally sourced and globally artistic, rooted in cultivating a safe relationship with the environment and our table"—no shortage of ambition there.
What we wanted to know: Can a world-class chef open this many restaurants and have them all be a reflection of his philosophy and his culinary voice?
The best dishes are the small plates, salads, and appetizers—all of which seem to reflect the considerable talents of executive chef Dan Kluger, though Jean-Georges touches and flavors are very much in evidence. Peekytoe Crab is an ingredient Jean-Georges has done wonderful things with in the past, and here he doesn't let us down with the peekytoe crab toast; Kluger and Vongerichten are having good culinary locavore fun with the toast concept, and in season, ramps are also served on toast along with a spread of local goat cheese.
Essence of spring pea soup had an intensely sweet pea flavor; raw fish preparations had Jean-Georges touches, like a mackerel sashimi marinated in ginger—sensational in its fresh-tasting, non-oily simplicity. And the dish that elicited the most wows from the table was a roast carrot and avocado salad. Sounds boring, yes? But it is most assuredly not. The roasted carrots are sweet, nutty, and cumin-y, the avocado creamy, with seeds for crunch.
Entrees were for the most part tasty, but less remarkable. A boned half chicken had ultra-crispy skin, and moist and flavorful dark meat, but white meat that was slightly less moist. A pork chop from Flying Pig Farms is not all that thick, but the pig meat is sufficiently marbled to keep it moist.
Unfortunately, there were both hits and misses on the dessert menu. Every restaurant should have a house ice-cream sundae ($8), especially when it's as diabolically delicious as ABC Kitchen's: housemade peanut and salted caramel ice cream, to-die-for chocolate sauce, whipped creme fraiche, and a few kernels of caramel corn for crunch. Others were a bit disappointing—including an individual rhubarb-apple pie with fruit that wasn't quite cooked down, a slightly dry chocolate cake, and an ice cream cake that was decidedly less than the sum of its parts.
That said, even when Jean-Georges is overburdened with multiple restaurant openings, he can still create a restaurant to get excited about. ABC Kitchen delivers consistently good value and much seriously delicious food in a relaxed, fun setting. Can we ask any more from a restaurant—by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, or anyone else, for that matter? I don't think so.