Saturday, May 29, 2010

ABC's of J.G.: ABC Kitchen

The cavernous reaches of ABC Carpet and Home brim with an eclectic mix of new and old, reasonable to astronomically priced, and every possible textile known to mankind. Within it's sprawling, barn-like interior, Jean Georges has found an apt haven for his latest venture, a farm-to-table, local-seasonal dining hall with many of the same attributes, called, simply, ABC Kitchen. This is one of few of Vongerichten's establishments that forgoes using his name in any manner in the nomenclature, instead adopting the title of this iconic New York City shopping destination and simply adding the designation of a kitchen to differentiate it from store. It is, also, a humble name, and ABC (of all Vongerichten's restaurants), is an unpretentious display of fine ingredients and uncomplicated execution, quite reminiscent of the store itself.

That's not to say that the food is simple and predictable... quite the contrary. But it is those things, relatively speaking, for J.G. The dining room unfolds behind the first floor of the store, through glass doors and past a dimly lit bar. Exposed concrete pillars support a wooden beamed ceiling, from which filament bulbs suspend on uncovered cords. There are charming miniature bud vases on each table filled with a few simple sprigs of seasonal flora. Sleek white chairs contrast with the rural decor, adding a hint of modernity which will be reflected in the menu as well. All the flatware, glassware, and dinnerware are a mismatched hodgepodge of lovely china you might have found pieces of in your grandmother's dining room. There is music wafting above from somewhere, indecipherable above a somewhat cacophonous noise level, and the partially exposed kitchen reflects a glow from the wood burning oven off the steel hoods and countertops. In front of that stands a heavy wooden table bearing the fruits of the market, and what will soon appear upon your plate.

ABC's menu is a smattering of options: you can eat almost any way you please, from small plates to sharing large ones, a classic multi-course meal or perhaps just a pizza and some sides. These will change so frequently that the menu I had found online was already obsolete, despite the restaurant only having been open for a matter of weeks. But this shouldn't dissuade anyone. There are ample choices, and really nary a dud in the mix. Chef Dan Kluger (New York native) masters what J.G.V. mapped out. A lemony scallop carpaccio with just a tiny kick of horseradish is as fresh and summery as an ocean could produce. The first dish order were the I fiddleheads I spied on a neighboring table, and their nutty, vegetal brilliance was only nudged with a little butter and salt, served with a thick wedge of lemon, but really held their own without it. Equally brilliant was a bowl of roasted beets, slightly tangy with pickled ramps and nestled

into a bed of thick yogurt. A sprightly mix of slivered snowpeas on leaves of endive with more lemon (citrus is a prevalent flavor) and perhaps a little too much parmesan was still a bright and refreshing little salad.
What read on the menu to be a most decadent and sumptuous morel and wild mushroom pizza with farm eggs and a salty crumble of cheese was actually the most lackluster dish sampled. The crust was just a little thick, the mushrooms just a little
past their prime, and all of the aforementioned somewhat wanting of a sprinkle of salt (at the table in a precious white porcelain dish and a spoon so tiny and cute it just about breaks your heart). In all honesty, perhaps on it's own with a glass of rose it might've been a decent pie, but it just didn't stand up to the level of the rest of the cookery. A peekytoe crab toast, on the other hand, was almost looked over, and despite it's austere description, was quite a gluttonous crostino of heavily buttered, super crusty and chewy sourbread toast, generously mounded with sweet, fresh lumps of peekytoe joined by a smooth aioli flecked with chives. It was an outstanding dish, and too, could serve as a meal in itself, maybe with a side of those fiddleheads and a glass of gewurtztraminer off the extensive wine list.

Main courses showed just as much opportunity. There were four fishes, a chicken, a pork, a steak and a burger. We stayed piscine (which is fairly typical for me) with a chili-spiked black seabass, served with buttery-fleshed red potatoes and jalapeno flecked spinach. The crispy fish skin was just elevated above the broth to preserve it's integrity, and the snowy white fish flaked effortlessly into the robust broth... a masterful dish. A silken halibut filet was steamed just past what Eric Ripert would deem cooked enough (which I never think is quite enough) to what might be the mostly perfectly cooked piece of fish I have ever had. It was buoyed up by an thickened broth of pureed asparagus, dotted with silky chunks of cool avocado and meaty quartered shiitakes. I do think mushrooms lose a lot when served in broths, but this is a negligible shortcoming. A generous flush of lime zest completes the green backdrop for the halibut's pristine white flesh.

Though bursting at the seams, I cannot pass up rhubarb when it presents itself, and the buttery shortbread crust and perfectly tangy compote below did not disappoint. Even the espresso was magnificent; a roasty, bold but smooth tasse pulled short and strong, a three sip finale to end an almost flawless meal.

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