by Nicky Cahill•20th January 2012
New York City: a place of endless energy, relentless ambition, continuous choice and unlimited urgency. Variety is the spice of life, but it can also be overwhelming, and confusing. Our time is so precious to all of us, that when we travel we want to have the best possible experience. We want the most exciting stories to tell when we return home, and are asked the question, ‘Well, so what was the food like?’ Good food can make or break a trip. Reading the “Where To Eat” Bibles often leaves us foodies wanting, because we know that the pages of the majority of them are filled with establishments that pay to be there.
One of my newest and best food memories is that of Abc Kitchen, (35 East 18th Street between Broadway and Park, New York City).
In a city like New York, with some of the best dining experiences in the world, how does a restaurant stand out? The answer is that it has to have the whole package: not only extraordinary food, but also attentive service, a space with vibrancy, stylish interiors, good crockery and cutlery, a menu that tickles the taste buds the moment you start reading it and a welcoming atmosphere.
Awarded “Best New Restaurant of 2011” by the James Beard Foundation, Abc is a restaurant that not only readily deserves this award but is also one that I wish I could eat in every day.
It’s a place that first and foremost respects good, organic ingredients. They have staff that wholly believe in the restaurant’s food ethics and philosophy of fresh produce, barely touched, from the field to the plate. The menu celebrates simplicity and avoids food gimmicks.
You can eat roasted Portobello mushrooms with celery leaves; marinated heirloom tomatoes with chillies and basil; roasted aubergine toast with peppers and lemon and wholewheat pizzas, with toppings such as mushrooms, Parmesan, oregano and farm egg. There’s also an akaushi burger with herbed mayonnaise and pickled jalapenos, and what I am told is the most popular lunch option, a house roasted turkey sandwich with applewood smoked bacon, arugula and jalapenos. The secret for a chef to be able to serve dishes like these is an unwavering belief in the quality of the ingredients.
Offering farm-to-table dining, the restaurant sources 70% of its food from a ninety-mile radius, from May to October, with a commitment to try to reach 100% of the ingredients sourced from within this area, as soon as they can. And, you can really taste the difference the lack of food miles makes to the freshness and colour of the food that is served.
Overseen by Alsatian chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, famous for fusing French classics and Asian flavours, Chef Dan Kluger was cooking in the kitchen the day we were there. Both men shop regularly at Manhattan’s Union Square Greenmarket, often picking up produce and creating a dish around it. This is what I am told happened with my favourite dish on the menu the ‘shaved radish toast, grainy mustard butter and black pepper’.
Freshly made sourdough bread had been brushed with olive oil and toasted, giving it a crunchy, chewy texture, and topped with several types of garden fresh radishes, so thin that they looked like pieces of the most delicate tissue paper. They swept along the top of the bread like a dusting of confetti that had been anointed with glossy mustard and black pepper butter that had just a hint of saltiness. It tasted light and tangy. Those radishes reminded me of the ones I ate as a child, sitting in the middle of our vegetable garden, straight out of the soil, a vegetable untouched by electric refrigeration.
Braised hake, cabbage, chillies and seaweed, grilled chicken salad with pistachios, fennel & cider dressing, and steamed salmon salad, tomatoes, haricot verts and goat cheese feta were placed before us. All our plates were cleared, but our waiter assured us, if they hadn’t been doggy bags were available, and all food waste was put on compost heaps – to ease the carbon footprint of the restaurant.
The puddings were twists on classics that I have since recreated several times at home – an ice-cream sundae, a cookie plate, and an upside down cake. The signature pudding was the salted caramel ice cream and candied peanuts and popcorn, served with chocolate sauce: rich, creamy and salty, with a dash of chocolate sauce.
Our waiters pointed out the list of the kitchen’s commitments and standards with regards to their conscious sourcing policy, printed on the back of each – recycled paper - menu. This stretches not only to the food and wine that is served but also the artwork, utensils, accessories, plates and furniture, cleaning products, a rooftop herb garden and an impressive ingredients provenance list. They use reclaimed and recycled building materials wherever possible and even the tree we were eating on had been carved from a windfall tree.
The obvious comparisons to the Abc kitchen and its philosophy is Alice Water’s Chez Panisse restaurant, in California, or Mrytle Allen’s Ballymaloe House, in County Cork in Ireland, both of which set the bar for excellent sourcing and simple recipes in the 1980’s.
The Abc dining room is a space similar to a farmhouse barn, with recycled wooden beams that frame the ceiling, grey flagstone floors, whitewashed walls, huge black and white photographs, wild flowers on the table and a sort of dusky lighting that adds to the feeling of romance. The atmosphere is relaxed and familial, waiters wear plimsolls and checked shirts and the clientele is a mix across the demographics.
And if you love the whole experience enough, there is even a shop where you can buy the same look. They have really thought of everything.
Abc Kitchens: www.abckitchennyc.com
Follow the team at Abc: @ABCKitchen
Nicky Cahill’s website: www.saltandsparkle.com
Follow Nicky on Twitter @saltandsparkle