ABC Kitchen- New York

My last blog post left off with the question of where world renowned chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten will open next.  This famous chef and restaurateur is on a roll, opening restaurants all over the world in big cities like London and Paris, and even remote locations like Bora Bora and Doha.  I was pleasantly surprised to find the answer in his current home turf, New York City.  Jean-Georges’ newest venture, called ABC Kitchen, brings him back to the Big Apple where he keeps a close watch over several successful and award winning restaurants, including his 3 Michelin starred namesake Jean-Georges in the Trump International Hotel and Tower.  As if he’s not busy enough, he opened ABC Kitchen in March of this year, just 2 weeks after opening The Mark Restaurant in the Mark Hotel on the Upper East Side. The theme at ABC Kitchen is farm-to-table with an emphasis on sustainability and conscious sourcing.

Jean Georges partnered with Paulette Cole, CEO of ABC Home, to open ABC Kitchen on the 1st floor of the ABC Carpet & Home Building near Union Square.  The beautiful restaurant and café space looks like an extension of the posh furniture and interior store, decorated in Boho chic with white wooden furniture, antique crystal chandeliers, distressed mirrors and salvaged entry doors that are so beautiful that they could easily sell as ‘as-is’ merchandise. Distressed wooden ceiling beams salvaged from a barn, exposed brick walls painted in pure white and artwork by local artists create a warm and inviting countryside atmosphere that transport you far away from the honking taxis and busy streets just outside.

ABC Kitchen salutes sustainability and local resourcing by constructing their menu around fresh organic and local ingredients that cultivate a harmonious relationship with our environment.  Every produce that is proudly displayed on a table by the semi-open kitchen comes from organic farms that don’t use pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or insecticides, and can be traced to a specific farm.  Meat, fish and dairy are also locally sourced from farms that promote cruelty-free humane animal treatment.  Herbs and microgreens are grown on a rooftop garden while teas, coffees and spices are organically cultivated on fair trade cooperatives.

The gorgeous interior is something to be proud of too.  Reclaimed wooden tables and porcelain dinnerware were handcrafted by local artists, bread baskets were handcrafted by indigenous Mapuche people of Patagonia, and many of their cups and flatware are antique.  Soy candles that come alive for dinner service are free of pesticides, GMO’s and additives.  The menus are printed on FSC certified 100% post-consumer fiber and coasters are made from cardboard shipping boxes.  Front-of-the-house staff uniforms were bought at local thrift stores.  The concept extends even to places that we cannot see- all cleaning products used in the restaurant are organic.  It’s no wonder that the space feels warm, clean and radiant.  From the moment that I stepped through the front door, I felt the refreshing and pure energy of the room.

It was the perfect place to catch up with my friend Steve Plotnicki of Opinionated About Dining over lunch.  Needless to say, as an out-of-towner choosing a restaurant for a New York based gourmand and blogger, I was a bit nervous.  What venue do I choose for a man who not only has dined at practically every restaurant in Manhattan, but has also appeared on No Reservations and can summon the voices of Jay Rayner and Eric Ripert for a food survey?  It was my luck that ABC Kitchen was one of the few restaurants in New York that Steve had not dined at yet.  We were both excited to try Chef Dan Kluger’s (who has previously worked at Gramercy Tavern and Tabla) market-driven cuisine.

We started with the sweet pea soup, a bright and almost fluorescent green broth with mint ribbons, carrot slices and big crunchy croutons.  Whole round green peas added snappy texture to the wonderful vegetable soup that was full of vibrant flavors.

Raw Maine diver scallops sliced into thin carpaccio slices were garnished with horseradish shavings, sea salt and olive oil in a beautiful pearly scallop shell.  The fresh scallops were incredibly tender and soft, melting in my mouth with the ease of warm butter.  What really made the dish was the olive oil, an intense fruity Californian oil with deep nutty aromas.

Pretzel dusted calamari served with marinara and mustard aioli could’ve been more crisp, as this dish is really all about texture.  Perhaps we would have had more success with their other appetizers, such as wood oven roasted asparagus, caprese salad, roasted carrot & avocado salad, or mackerel sashimi with ginger & mint.

Perfectly cooked steamed halibut with shiitake mushrooms, avocado and asparagus juice was a light dish with simple flavors but wonderfully orchestrated to enhance the innate delicious flavors of each vegetable.  I could really taste and appreciate the bounties of the earth in its purest and uncorrupted form.

The restaurant offered a variety of pastas and whole wheat pizzas, from housemade ricotta ravioli and veal meatballs to spinach & goat cheese pizza.  We tried the pizza with morels, parmesan, oregano and farm egg, a dish that has not quite found its perfect state yet and needs a lot of tweaking.  A better preparation of the various fungi to bring out its flavors better, coupled with more parmesan would have made it much more palatable. 

The best dish at ABC Kitchen was the Akaushi cheeseburger with herbed mayo, pickled jalapeños, wild arugula, herbed mayo and grated Cato Corner cheese.   I had never heard of Akaushi before my lunch at ABC Kitchen, and am now left wondering why this incredibly tender and flavorful meat hasn’t become mainstream yet.  Akaushi means ‘red cow’ in Japanese, and it’s a Japanese Wagyu brand of cattle that has the characteristic marbled meat and rich flavors of other Wagyu brands like Kobe beef.  Akaushi originally came from Kumamoto prefecture in Japan, and the small number of Akaushi cows that were imported to the US many years ago are now being raised at Heartbrand Beef in Harwood, Texas.  The perfect spiciness of the jalapeños, the creamy herb mayo, the sharp grated cheese that doesn’t overwhelm, the bitterness of the wild arugula and the soft Eli’s bun, all perfectly balanced the luscious fattiness and flavors of the medium rare Akaushi burger patty to make one of the best burgers that I have ever had in my life.

Salted Caramel-Peanut Ice Cream Sundae: The perfect balance in a sweet-salty dessert with a whipped creme fraiche topping, chocolate sauce, and caramel popcorn crisp.

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ABC Kitchen

35 east 18th street (between broadway & park avenue)
new york ny 10003
phone 212 475 5829

Random trivia:  Did you know that intact horseradish root has hardly any aroma or sharp flavors, but when cut or grated, the enzyme myrosinase released from the damaged cells degrades sinigrin to a mustard oil, giving it its characteristic pungent taste?

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Opinionated About Dining- Best Meal of 2009 survey

I received an e-mail from Steve Plotnicki of Opinionated About Dining a few weeks ago while I was traveling through India.  He was surveying various people in the food industry, and asking them all the same two questions:

1.  What was your best meal of 2009?

2.  Name the chef that showed the most potential in 2009?

Unfortunately, when I received the initial e-mail I was deathly sick from some unidentified virus and in the midst of receiving my painful initiation into Indian travel.  Yes, I know that everybody who goes to India gets sick at least once, but after surviving 7 healthy months in the deep African bush, I didn’t think that it would happen to me.  In any case, being asked such important heavy-weighted culinary questions during a 5-day vomiting marathon was pretty tough.  I take these questions seriously, and I wanted to give him my best answers.

I had many fantastic meals this year, but in the end it was L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Paris, France.  There’s a reason why he’s been named ‘Chef of the Century’ and continues to expand his global empire.  His food is fantastic and flawless.  Nobody can argue with that.  Every dish was executed with perfection and grace, and there wasn’t a single dish that disappointed.  Egg cocotte with morel cream sauce was a divine masterpiece, grilled ribeye was dripping with flavorful juices and roasted beef marrow never tasted so luscious.  It was a magical evening of excellent food and wine in the trendy neighborhood of Saint Germain des Prés.  The evening ended with a crazy impromptu night tour through the deserted streets of Paris with a friendly taxi driver named Michel.  Gazing up at the enormous steel structure of the Tour Eiffel at 2AM, still drunk on Savigny-les-Beaune reds and high on the succulent veal liver with crispy onion rings, it now remains a happy memory that will always make me smile.

Egg cocotte with morel cream

As for chef showing the most potential?  I chose local celebrity chef Ludo Lefebvre, as his 2 successful LudoBites events have created quite a sensation here in LA.   Unlike traditional restaurants, LudoBites is a temporary pop-up event held in other restaurants that are normally only open for breakfast and lunch.  It’s a new style of dining that completely breaks free from the traditional and stuffy molds of restaurant bureaucracy.  During the limited engagement events at both the Breadbar and Royal/T, I saw a very energetic and happy Ludo shine in an environment where he could be free to express himself and his creativity without being bound by any chains.  In true Ludo style, his food was bursting with radical flavors and concepts.  The rich and smoky chorizo soup, topped with a dollop of tangy cornichon sorbet and tempered by the sweetness of the juicy cantaloupe cubes, was epic.  Black foie gras croque monsieur, grill pressed to a perfect crispy exterior to contrast the buttery foie gras treasure inside, was inspirational with the cherry amaretto sauce.  Escargots got a break from their standard corkscrew coffins to bathe in a warm bowl of aromatic yellow ginger curry.  I really feel that these limited time pop-up restaurants are the next wave of the future.  It’s a fresh new way for chefs to express their ideas and inspirations, and it’s an exciting avenue for diners to experience novel flavors and menu concepts.  Chef Ludo, you have potentially started an incredible culinary trend- and for that, I named you for this survey.

Chorizo soup with cantaloupe and cornichon sorbet

Check out the interesting OAD Best Meal of the Year 2009 survey, and see what the other 75 participants, which include Eric Ripert, Anthony Bourdain, Thomas Keller and Jay Rayner, named in the survey.  This wonderful website is also a great reference for any of you gourmands looking for exceptional eats all over the world.

What was your best meal of 2009?

Los Angeles Food Trucks

Let's Be Frank food truck at the Helm's Bakery

Let's Be Frank food truck at the Helm's Bakery

Los Angeles is in the midst of a food truck craze.  Although there have been numerous breakfast and taco trucks in all parts of LA for decades, it’s only recently that ‘gourmet food trucks’ have become almost a cult phenomenon.  First there was Cafe Nagomi, an organic Japanese food truck frequently found in the Sony studios area in Culver City that sells delicious bento boxes and green tea lattes.   Let’s Be Frank, a lovely hot dog truck that you can find in the parking lot of Helm’s Bakery in Culver City, is one of my favorites.  I first discovered them at a Santa Monica Pier twilight concert event in the summer of 2008.  Their uncured beef franks topped with generous heaps of Indian spiced pepper sauce hits the spot.  Then there was Kogi BBQ, probably one of the most popular trucks today that people follow religiously on Twitter.

Let's Be Frank's brat dog

Let's Be Frank's brat dog

Since then there’s been an explosion of others, such as Baby’s Badass Burger serving gourmet burgers, Get Shaved serving Hawaiian style shaved ice,  Fishlips Sushi serving sushi rolls, Lomo Arigato serving Japanese style Peruvian food, and most recently Nom Nom Truck known for Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches just to name a few.

Why the craze and why all this mania?  First of all, in these tough economic times, who doesn’t like cheap, quick and delicious eats?   Secondly, easily bored Angelenos are always looking for something innovative to tweak their interest and please their appetite.  IMG_1154Now these mobile trucks are easily accessible in major LA neighborhoods well into the late hours of the evening to provide good old comfort food.  And now that the majority of the population not only have iPhones, but play with it incessantly and obsessively every other minute to update their Facebook status or follow others on Twitter, one will always know where to track these trucks down.  And who can deny the thrill of the chase?  It’s so much more exciting to hunt down a roving venue that is hard to catch.  The pursuit is just as appealing as the triumph of finding it and enduring the long lines to actually eat the food.

So does the food live up to its hype?  Is it really worth Twittering Kogi BBQ and waiting in line for 2 hours for $5 tacos?  I wasn’t about to waste my precious time, so I tried some Kogi BBQ food at The Alibi Room in Culver City.  We started off with the vegan sesame leaf/perilla tacos with kimchi slaw and a side of taro and lotus root chips.  The tacos had a nice crisp texture to the slaw and a refreshing citrus flavor.  A nice, simple starter.

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The chips were greasy and tasteless.  None of the lotus root chips were crispy, in fact they were all a soggy sad-looking mess.

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The tofu and citrus salad looked like everything else we just had plus tofu, all thrown into a plate.  Same flavors, same ingredients,  just a different container.

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The thing to get for sure is the Kogi 3 taco combo where you can sample the kalbi short rib, bbq chicken and spicy pork.  They all came with the same cabbage, cilantro, lime and onion slaw as the previous dishes.  At least the meats were different.  The tacos were good, but not great.  They were good enough for me to enjoy them with my beer as I sat at the lively bar on a Saturday night hanging out with friends.  But they weren’t good enough for me to have to drive around LA hunting down the trucks, only to sacrifice another couple of hours waiting in line and eating it on the sidewalk.  It doesn’t seem worth it.  I go to Let’s Be Frank and Cafe Nagomi because there is never a line, it’s always at the same place and I know I can get my food within minutes.  But the other food trucks just don’t excite me right now.  Too much work for too little return.

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Don’t get me wrong, I am the first one to drive for miles in pursuit of outstanding eats.  I will frequently drive out to San Gabriel Valley by myself just to have some shrimp dumplings or pickled pigs ears, and if that urge hits me during rush hour, then so be it.  I am also always willing to patiently wait in line for good food.  Recently at the 1 day-only public wholesale event at Gourmet Imports in SGV, I waited in line for 2.5 hours to buy whole Rougie foie gras lobes, white truffle honey, argan oil and Piment D’Espelette.  But for now, if I get that craving for burgers or fancy tacos, I’ll round up my friends and head to a sit-down dive where we can sit comfortably and talk over a bottle of wine.

Steve sizing up the dog

Steve sizing up the dog

On a recent quick stop to Let’s Be Frank to satiate my hot dog craving, I met Steve Plotnicki from Opinionated About Dining.  He’s an experienced and refined foodblogger/gourmand from New York who has eaten the world!

http://kogibbq.com

http://twitter.com/kogibbq/

Random trivia:   Did you know that purple sesame leaves, or red perilla, is toxic to some cattle and horses?  When they consume these leaves while grazing in the fields, they can get a lung condition called perilla mint toxicosis.