Wednesday, July 31, 2013


I was following Dan Kluger here, but he put me in the deft hands of his chef de cuisine, Ian Coogan.  Like Seamus Mullen of Tertulia, he looks more likely to be cooking mushy peas than sweet pea empanadas, but, his half Australian and half Mexican upbringing opened a global window, and through this is seen the wonders of ABC Cocina.

Not that this isn't a collaborative effort- and the same can be said for Jean-Georges' contribution, who despite his presence on two occasions of mine dining at ABC Kitchen, was not in the Cocina this evening.  The freshness and vibrancy for which he is known, however, is literally bursting at the seams at Cocina.  Cocina is the Spanish term for kitchen, but this kitchen does not restrict itself to a single nationality.  Authentic tapas are Spanish in origin, and a majority of the menu options celebrate the  Mexican influence of Coogan's mother, but there are glimmers from across the globe, from pesto and chimmichurri to spices like saffron and techniques from Japan.  Instead of limiting its scope, ABC Cocina capitalizes on a global economy, while simultaneously using only the smartest, seasonal and sustainable  ingredients.   This boundlessness liberates the menu from the heaviness that can oftentimes dominate Mexican cuisine in this country.   The room is as energetic as the menu, sparkling chandeliers reflect on the high gloss of lacquered tables, and the noise level similarly boisterous.  It gives the room a magical feel, a portent of excitement.  And as soon as the food you order begins to appear, the sensation is justified.  Formatted more for small plate sampling than app/entree, many of the dishes are garnished with wedges of citrus; for others, there is a small glass pitcher of a fruity hot sauce that perks up myriad dishes (as if they needed it).   Lucky to be in a large group, we sampled a lot of the menu, and the more I ate, the happier I was.

An artful heap of spring vegetables was crisp, fresh- but a little unwieldy.  While rife with local
produce- radishes, beans, greens, endive, etc.- the bowl was so overflowing that it threatened to tumble out on to the table unless  you selectively picked off pieces from the top, like an inverse Jenga.  But pinching off a sprout, a shaving a manchego, a slice of radish as individual players defeats the team as a whole.  I found myself wishing I had a Chop't salad bowl to lid and shake all the elements into submission, because most of the good stuff was at the bottom.  Minor technical inconvenience,
however, once you really got your fork in there and messed things up.  More easily accessible was a deceptively simple-looking tomato salad.  The were fine as any fruits I've had, dressed simply with shards of red onion, shreds of basil, with fiery loops of serrano chili touched with sherry vinegar.  The ingredients somehow created a devilishly sexy salad, dripping with juices, red as desire.

Bringing the kitchen's fire into the equation, roasted wax beans nuzzled into a thick puddle of zesty romesco.  There was a little too much sauce for the number of beans, so if there are more than four people, order two portions or someone's gonna get shorted legumes.  The sauce is a fine accoutrement scooped up with crusty bread, though, so nothing needs to be wasted.  A hot little crock of roasted corn was blanketed in crumbly cotija, and while a squirt of lime brightened the rich, buttery kernels, I couldn't help wishing they would have been a bit creamier, but lacking in summery corn flavor they were not.

The menu doesn't make a clear designation for the size of the dishes that arrive; it is divided more by flavor profiles and structure than volume, but it's fairly easy to gauge with a glimpse at the respective prices.  There are main-course type options here, mostly from the "wood burning grill section", although the maitake mushroom  was  appetizer-sized, despite a generous parapet of dense goat cheese drizzled in a perky fresno pepper vinaigrette.  It's frilly edges were roasted to a nutty, rich crisp as it's heart absorbed the flavorful dressing.  Smeared with a little cheese, a marvelous combination.  But like I said, the dishes are best divided and shared.  Of the tacos we ordered, however, sharing proved itself effortful after first bites: the short rib taco was a highlight of the night.  Warm, pliant tortillas were just substantial enough to hold things together
 without an overwhelming doughiness.  In fact, the balance of ingredients was quite perfect: salty, crunchy rings of onion were definitely more Fun-yun that "frizzled" as described, but all the more delicious for it.  Crisper than a typical onion ring but still with that melting allium intact.  Boldly oniony- these would put French's out of business in a heartbeat.  Chunks of meat within were butter-soft and richly beefy, spiked judiciously with a habanero relish that contributed heat without masking its savoriness.  Fish tacos were equally wonderful.  Given the choice between crispy-fried or griddled, we chose the latter.  Sturdy scallops of halibut touted a beachy char, enriched with a luscious aioli and the vibrant crunch of a spicy pickled cabbage. At two to an order, make sure to order adequate quantities so no one (especially yourself) misses out.  

 The one dish we ordered that would serve as a traditional entree was a slow-cooked stew of delicate, pillowy halibut smothered in a salty ragout of vibrant peas and carrots, heavy on the veg and less so of the moist fish, but that is the proportion I actually prefer (and I think Michael Pollan would approve).  A touch on the salty side, but countered by a funky hit of saffron and an oily richness.  We also ordered a stewed chicken rice dish, but the kitchen had run out.  We were offered a substitute of arroz con pollo, or the market vegetable option, but needing no more food at this point, the rice section of the menu will have to be explored at another time.

Desserts stem from traditional classics with innovative twists.  Arroz con leche emerges as a coupe of thick rice pudding, heady with white chocolate caramelized into a Magic Shell-esque glaze, and hints of cinnamon.  It is crowned with enormous, jewel-like raspberries- fresh from the farmer's market, I'm sure.   A passion fruit sundae pairs scoops of sorbet, gelato and ice cream beneath a crumble of sweet crushed biscuits, softened by an intense syrup made from more of the tangy tropical fruit.  Cool and creamy, sweet and sour, crunchy and smooth, it is an ideal summer sweet.

ABC Cocina took over the space that was formerly Pipa, and while the ABC Carpet & Home decor made the transition, that is where the similarities end.  Here too, the fixture and service ware come from the adjacent store, but the cuisine is strictly the genius of the three chefs at the helm:  Vongerichten's influence is the framework, but Kluger's finesse and focus pairs with Coogan's Latino contribution like a three-point star.  Which of course, does not exist.  But if it could be created in a kitchen, this team would figure out a way to cook it.  And, it would be delicious.

       38 east 19th street 
       phone 212-677-2233

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