I had dinner tonight with Nate and some old friends at ABC Kitchen, the new Jean-Georges Vongerichten/Phil Suarez venture in everyone’s favorite Victorian-department-store-meets-grandmother’s-attic-meets-design-studio, that is, ABC Carpet and Home. Dan Kluger is the chef, and even though his father, Arthur, is a student in my classes at the Taoist Tai Chi Society, I can honestly say we had one of the most delicious meals I’ve had out in a very long time.
What made it so good? First, the seasonality of Kluger’s extensive menu, which changes every day. I had passed through the Union Square Market on my way to work this morning, and I saw many of the ingredients that found their way onto Kluger’s menu: ramps, the first local asparagus, kale, swiss chard, microgreens. There were fava beans, rhubarb, and sugar snap peas. This wasn’t a jump-the-season menu. There were still roasted carrots, turnips, and beets, fresh horseradish, and Meyer lemons to remind us that winter could still rear its head. But the mix of ingredients, techniques, and ultimately the dishes, was spot on for this moment in time, this place.
I also appreciate how many vegetables are scattered throughout the menu in every category, not just the sides. It’s so hard to eat out in New York and get enough variety and quantity of vegetables, and I don’t mean fried or covered in cheese. Here were salads and side dishes and pastas and pizzas with vegetables at their core. Of course there’s plenty of fish and meat, too. But in a panoply of 20 or so dishes we sampled, the vegetables stood out. My favorite dish of all? A special not on the printed menu: seemingly lowly grilled Swiss chard stems, which had a delicate texture and an impressively deep flavor of earth and smoke with just a touch of heat. I loved their frugality as much as their flavor. (I always cook the stems when I have chard at home, but mine never taste this hauntingly good.) Not far behind were the roasted turnips with the honey-thyme marmalade and the roasted carrot and avocado salad with a dollop of sour cream and a citrus dressing.
The pastas were impressive, especially the housemade ricotta cavatelli, a spring fling with ramps, favas, and asparagus, punctuated with salty, crunchy bits that presented a pleasant surprise in every bite. The same ricotta was stuffed into housemade ravioli that were served in a sweet tomato sauce. Twice we had to stop our waiter from taking away the bowl so we could sop up the sauce with another piece of Sullivan St. Bread. That bread finds itself toasted, sprinkled, and schmeared with many a creative crostini topping, including a smooth, rich purée of ramps, a sweet, minerally chicken liver pâté, and a pile of crab dotted with aïoli. The most fun pasta on the menu was a post-Jewish version of kasha varnishkes, for which handmade bow ties were tossed with toasted buckwheat groats and tiny, juicy veal meatballs. It made me swoon. And then it made me miss my mother.
Our gastronomic pleasures didn’t stop there. We were impressed with the sweetness of the raw Maine shrimp blanketed with shavings of horseradish root. The delicate whole wheat pizza crust beneath a (too heavy?) bed of black trumpet mushrooms drew attention from two at the table. If there was any disappointment, it was the one entrée we ordered to share, a grilled pork chop that seemed to have suffered from too long a bath in brine and had a rubbery texture as a result. But the apple-Meyer lemon purée it was served with was an ample antidote. If not for the brilliance of the other dishes we had tasted, I’m not sure we wouldn’t have enjoyed this pork, too.
Dessert did not ruin our buzz. Classic but somehow contemporary, and presented on a collection of old china, the sweet courses were perfectly suited to the meal. When’s the last time you were served a wedge of chocolate layer cake in a restaurant? Or any cake? (I know, at Locanda Verde, but it’s rare these days.) This chocolate cake was enrobed in toasted marshmallow. The Meyer lemon and meringue tart was exemplary of the genre. A brown butter, chocolate, and hazelnut tart had an unexpectedly light, custardy texture. Delicate donuts, half filled with vanilla, the other half filled with blood orange cream, came with a counterbalancingly bitter blood orange marmalade on the side. And the grown-ups caramel sundae with salty popcorn, peanuts, and a deep dark chocolate sauce recommended by our waiter was a crowd-pleaser for all ages, if ever there was one.
Though the staff are handsome, the crowd is chic, and the environment is classic ABC, the focus is the food. Order a lot of dishes to share and pay attention to what you are eating. The chef obviously does. So should you.