ABC Kitchen – A Better Choice?

ABC Kitchen, the newest restaurant in Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s NYC restaurant empire, was recently awarded the title of Best New Restaurant 2011 in the United States by the James Beard Foundation, the nation’s culinary equivalent of the Oscars. In winning the award, ABC Kitchen beat out other notable newcomers including San Francisco’s Benu, Chicago’s The Girl and the Goat, Boston’s Menton and fellow New York City representative Torrisi Italian Specialties. This past weekend, I had the opportunity to try it for myself.

Sitting as a party of three, we decided we wanted to try a variety of items from the menu and so ordered a bunch of dishes to share. We started by ordering  four dishes from “the market table” section of the menu: three appetizers and a pasta dish. At this point we held off on ordering any entrees, waiting to see how hungry we would be later on.

Our beverages were brought quickly. The service throughout the evening was excellent. It was not only extremely efficient, but also warm without being invasive. My cocktail, a McKenzie Rye Whiskey Manhattan with Antica Vermouth and brandy soaked cherries was well crafted and tasty, cold and undiluted. Sliced bread with olive oil and radishes were good and served to keep our appetites at bay while we waited the few minutes for our food to be prepared.

The first dish to arrive was the chicken liver toast. The bread was crusty and warm and the chicken liver delivered with great flavor and balance. That it was also cut into three equal pieces, one for each of us, was a pleasant and very welcome surprise. We could have sworn that the slightly sweet undercurrent of flavor came from maple syrup, but we were told that is was from caramelized onions. Whatever the source, it made this spread one of the finest examples of chicken liver I have ever eaten. We all agreed that we were off to a very nice start.

Our surprise at the chicken liver toast having been cut into three equal portions was doubled when the sweet pea soup with carrots and mint was brought in three separate small bowls – we were sharing, not each ordering a bowl. Unfortunately the happy surprise of the service was dashed a bit by the soup itself. It was not that the soup was bad – it wasn’t. It just wasn’t what we were expecting. We expected a cold soup, but it was hot. This wasn’t really a big deal, but for some reason, we were each expecting a nice, refreshing soup rather than the hearty soup that arrived. More disappointing though was that the flavor of the soup was completely dominated by the mint. I happen to really, really like mint, but I also really, really like sweet peas. The soup had plenty of flavor, just not the flavor we were craving at the time

We were happier with the crab toast with lemon aioli, which was once again cut into three equal pieces. While it may seem like a little thing, I was really thrilled to find this kind of attention to detail with the service. I asked our waitress about it, and she told me that they routinely do this. Hooray! Finally a restaurant that truly understands how to let its patrons share plates of food! It was really nice to be able to do this truly hygienically with no need to worry about overlapping spoon bites or who would get the last, uneven piece.

Though not as easy to share, the raw diver scallops had been sliced into neat little rounds. Though the menu described the dish as raw diver scallops, apple, mint and lime, this was dominated by the newly (and inexplicably to me) trendy diced curly parsley spread on top. I really couldn’t tell if any of those other ingredients were present or not. Regardless, the scallops were of fine quality, sweet and tasty.

We were comped an extra dish. Roasted beets with housemade yogurt did not come out with equally divided portions, but it did come with a serving spoon. It was flavor packed with a nice sourness from the yogurt and also came with curly parsley.

Not every dish came in portions easily divided into three equal servings. The housemade ricotta ravioli, herbs and tomato sauce came four to a serving. As problems go, this one was not insurmountable. The ravioli itself was beautifully made with a nice, light pasta and a creamy, delicious filling. The sauce though, left me scratching my head. It had a taste reminiscent of jarred supermarket tomato sauces. I can’t imagine that it was if for no other reason than its beautifully bright, red color, however, I found it to be not to my liking. I suspect that the flavor came from the herbs and spices used.

The house-made chicken and pork sausage, warm potato and whole grain mustard salad brought the meal back on track. The flavors were salad and it was a pleasing dish. Of note, I welcomed the return of classic flat-leaf parsley back into the fold as well.

Pretzel dusted calamari, marinara and mustard aioli were well prepared with a nice twist from the pretzel coating on the calamari, but at the end of the day, they were still fried calamari. I happen to really like fried calamari, though, so that was ok with me.

By this time, we were starting to get comfortably full, too full for each of us to order an entree. We did want to try at least one, though. In discussing the menu, we found one that we all agreed upon but thought we might solicit the opinion of our waitress. When asked if there was one entree that should be a must, she responded without hesitation and confirmed the dish that we had chosen, but had not yet specified.

This was some kick-ass fried chicken! It was totally boneless, crispy, juicy and packed with flavor. Billed as fried organic chicken, lamb’s quarter, basil and hot sauce butter, this was easily the most delicious, satisfying and interesting dish of the night, a true winner. Though not served pre-cut for sharing (it really couldn’t have been), it was easy enough to apportion equally coming with its own set of serving utensils. The only problem was that we wanted more, but were too full for another full plate of it.

Since we had such good luck with our server’s advice for the entree we solicited her again for a dessert to share. Without denigrating any of the desserts, her favorite was the Sundae with salted caramel ice cream, candied peanuts & popcorn, whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Surprisingly it had a minimal amount of gratuitous sweetness and left me with the impression of cracker jacks for adults. The dessert was well conceived and well executed. Once again, our server hit on a winner.

Even though it is a restaurant within a store, ABC Kitchen is a very good, comfortable restaurant. The food was mostly excellent with a few misses and a couple of outstanding dishes. The service was truly superb and the prices were pretty reasonable for the quality of the product. If I lived in the city, I could very happily make this part of a rotation of regular restaurants. While I liked this restaurant and would love to have it in my neighborhood wherever I lived, I’m, however, perplexed as to its selection as the best new restaurant in the country. It is quite solid, but I never got the impression that it was truly special – the food is very good, but with the exceptions of the chicken liver toast and the fried chicken nothing was mind blowing or truly innovative. ABC Kitchen is not a restaurant I would recommend to someone looking for a destination restaurant in NYC, unless that person had already been to most of the other great restaurants and was searching for this particular style. Despite its overall quality, if ABC Kitchen was truly the Best New Restaurant in the United States last year, then I’m a little concerned for the future of fine dining in this country.


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3 Responses to ABC Kitchen – A Better Choice?

  1. Reid says:

    John,

    That sundae looks so delicious. It’s hot here and it would be a perfect way to cool down after dinner. I’m curious, what would have been your best new restaurant pick?

    • docsconz says:

      Of the ones nominated, I have only been to Torrisi, which is more innovative and has better food, but suffers comparatively in service and personality. My comment is not a statement that ABC is not a very good restaurant. It is, but if that is the best new restaurant in the country, it was a weak year. My early bet for 2011 is Next.

  2. Reid says:

    John,

    Oh no, I didn’t assume as much. I was just wondering, since you have been to a number of restaurants, if there was somewhere else that came to mind, nominated or not.

    Personally speaking, I have been to Benu and I don’t feel like I had an exceptional meal there.

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