I’ve been wanting to try Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s ABC Kitchen ever since it opened a little over a year ago in ABC Carpet & Home in the Union Square/Flatiron neighborhood of New York.

A celebrated chef, known for his elegant, dare I use the word ‘fusion,’ of classic French techniques with the flavors of other lands—Japan, or in this case, upstate New York—Jean-Georges has opened restaurants all over this city, most of which are successful (Jean-Georges, Perry Street, Mercer Kitchen) and only one or two considered misses perhaps (Vong, Spice Market).

ABC Kitchen is his version of capturing the gastronomical zeitgeist – casual, local, seasonal, downtown, and affordable (relatively speaking), as some chefs of his ilk have done of late (Daniel Boulud’s DBGB comes to mind). I don’t normally wish for chefs to expand their restaurant empires or jump on food trends, but I do wonder what Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin or Dan Barber of Blue Hill would do with more casual offshoots of their formal flagship restaurants. Of course, I don’t want either of these upstanding chefs to dilute the strength of their focused efforts, I just fantasize about the possibility of a weekday lunch of, say, a Fin Dorset lamb sandwich with garlic scapes and micro arugula (at my imaginary Blue Hill); or yellowfin tuna, shaved chives, and olive oil layered on a toasted baguette (at make-believe Le Bernardin).

ABC Kitchen promises a changing menu based on the seasons and local produce surrounding New York. The produce is reared without exposure to synthetic fertilizers or pesticides (the culinary equivalent of television); the meat and fish are pasture-raised, or line-caught, or sustainably harvested; the dairy is free of antibiotics, from animals treated humanely and fed a free-roaming diet of grass and probably coconut water.

My first view into the restaurant was on the Sundance Channel’s Iconoclast program last year, on an episode with Jean-Georges and Hugh Jackman, where the two prepare a charity dinner at the newly opened ABC Kitchen. Furnished with wares that can be purchased at ABC Carpet & Home, including the tables, chairs, bowls, plates, stemware, flower vases, and lighting fixtures, the restaurant has a comfortable, urban farmhouse feel about it. Downtown meets Upstate. French fries meet foie gras. Fine dining meets…ABC Carpet.

My dining companion once again was my friend Sarah (of Sunday’s Roman’s adventure), in town briefly from Vancouver. I made the reservation one week prior to our lunch which, to my relief, was plenty of time to book a 1 pm table on a weekday. The first thing I noticed upon our arrival was the gracious efforts of the host and the light-hearted chattiness of the fellow who escorted us to our table (“isn’t this weather so fresh?”)

I often have difficulty deciding what to order, especially if I know I may not return to a restaurant before the menu changes. In this case indecision would be an understatement. The cocktail menu alone included an entire section on fresh-squeezed vegetable-herb juices, fresh-fruit smoothies, and homemade sodas infused with herbs and citrus. I’m surprised they weren’t serving kombucha on tap! I opted for the coconut water and Sarah chose a dry, acidic white wine.

I love a restaurant companion who enjoys sharing plates as much as I do. That way you get to try twice as many items on the menu than you would if eating separate dishes. Sarah was game, so for our first course, we ordered the sweet pea soup with carrots and mint and the roasted carrot and avocado salad with crunchy seeds. It was difficult neglecting the appetizer of raw diver scallops with sea beans and serrano chilies and the crab toast with lemon aioli. We’d stare at waiters passing by with dishes for other tables to assess whether we’d made good decisions. (The crab toast, I have to say, being devoured by a neighboring table, looked quite good.)

I half-expected the pea soup to arrive chilled, but bucking that trend it is served hot, a bright green purée with crunchy pesto croutons and what tasted like the zest of lime. The salad was an abundance of micro greens (that may have been grown on the restaurant’s rooftop garden) sitting atop two perfectly roasted whole carrots, with quarters of ripe avocado.

For our main courses, we chose the steamed hake with roasted maitake, asparagus and spring onions; and the asparagus and heirloom tomato sandwich on focaccia with mozzarella and what I remember as pickled onions or radishes, hot peppers, and a side of house-cut french fries dusted with fresh rosemary and salt.

We lingered over the flavors of our first course for so long that we were startled out of our oohs and ahhs by our server bringing the second course before we were done with the soup and salad. They asked to clear our first-course plates when Sarah and I simultaneously and defensively pulled them in close and asked to keep them. I couldn’t discard the three spoonfuls of soup left or the tiny nub of roasted carrot remaining on the plate!

The second course did not disappoint. The focaccia was a soft and salty foil to the heat of the peppers and pickles, the mozzarella a smooth and silky pillow for the ripe red tomatoes. Olive oil oozed over my hands as I took big bites, taking care to get each layer of the sandwich in each mouthful. The hake was flaky, moist, infused with a light vinaigrette and when eaten together with the maitake produced the perfect bite. The asparagus was diced into tiny round pieces laying underneath and on top of the hake filet.

We were entirely too full to tackle dessert but coveted our neighbor’s sundae of vanilla ice cream with caramel and popcorn. Next time. Because this is, after all, Jean-Georges downtown, so there can be a next time.

Advertisements