Imperious superstar chefs tend to present themselves as pristine magicians, floating above the messy day-to-day fray of restaurant life. But if you think the gods of classical cooking are immune to the fickle winds of gimmickry and fashion, you’d be wrong. Jacques Pépin famously worked as a tastemaker for Howard Johnson’s; Paul Bocuse was an early proponent of the microwave oven; and it was Daniel Boulud, of course, who invented the haute hamburger. During the course of his illustrious and hyperkinetic career, however, no one has tried his hand at more gimmicks than Jean-Georges Vongerichten. The great Alsatian chef is famous for fusing Asian flavors with the classical tradition (at Vong, originally). He has dabbled in Vegas steakhouses (Prime Steakhouse), Southeast Asian street food (Spice Market), and dim-sum parlors (66). In deference to the comfort-food craze, his West Village restaurant, Perry St, now serves fried chicken for brunch, and if you have an appetite for overpriced Japanese food, Jean-Georges has a restaurant for that, too (Matsugen).
ABC Kitchen—which opened more or less simultaneously last month with the Mark, Jean-Georges’s more-classic uptown venture—is the chef’s most overtly gimmicky undertaking yet. As you may have heard, it’s located at the ABC Carpet & Home department store, on lower Broadway, which means you can browse for Scandinavian chandeliers and trendy Ganesh statuettes before repairing to the bar for a drink. The stated theme is locavore “sustainability”: Most things on the menu, “whenever possible,” come from local suppliers. The menus are made from recycled paper and affixed to pieces of cardboard righteously repurposed from ABC’s delivery boxes. The dun- colored place mats are compostable, and after closing time, all the leftovers are sent off to the compost heap too. The waiters wear casual “Converse-style” sneakers; the clay dishware has been fired by a local artisan in Connecticut (it’s available for purchase at ABC Home, of course); and the tables are set with wildflowers, plucked, presumably, in the hollows and dells of suburban New Jersey.
“It’s Jean-Georges meets Hee Haw,” muttered one of the jaded New York diners at my table, as we watched Martha Stewart herself sashay across the room in a baggy, peanut-colored coat. But when the food began to arrive, these mutterings were quickly replaced by studious, almost scholarly silences, punctuated by quiet exclamations of pleasure. The first salvo of small plates included tea- sandwich-size slices of grilled toast, drizzled with olive oil and piled with mounds of fresh peekytoe crab dotted with a lemony aïoli. There were little platters of pearly shrimp crudo, lightly speckled with shavings of horseradish, and stacks of roasted turnips, which were dressed in a honey-and-thyme marinade and had the texture of some ethereal form of Japanese eggplant. My helping of boutique beets (two varieties, from Satur Farms, set over housemade yogurt pooled with balsamic) had an ethereal quality to it too, as did a creation called Fragrant Mushroom Toast, which was piled with honshimeji mushrooms flavored with Japanese kombu, lemons, and a sprinkling of jalapeño and chives.
Jean-Georges is the architect of these distinctive barnyard treats, but the man in the kitchen is a young chef named Dan Kluger, who learned about the intricacies and rhythms of high-end locavore cooking during a long stint in the Danny Meyer empire. Does fried calamari work with a dusting of crushed pretzels from the Union Square Greenmarket? Yes, it does, especially when paired with a pot of delicately whipped mustard aïoli. The bowl of green-pea soup I sampled (with carrots and sprigs of mint) had a vivid, country freshness to it, and so did the salty, coarse-cut pork terrine, which is sliced into thick rounds and crisp-fried on its exterior, like country sausage. The spa-style whole-wheat pizzas are well executed but generally bland (the spicy homage to the great clam pies of New Haven is probably the most interesting), but the limited selection of pastas I sampled were excellent, especially the farfalle scattered with crunchy, popping bits of kasha, and the ravioli, which the kitchen injects with silky deposits of ricotta and wafer-size slips of basil.
“This is how I’d like to eat at my fancy country house, if I had a fancy country house,” my wife declared, as our amiable, sneaker-clad waiter cleared the earthenware dishes from the table. Pork, that old barnyard staple, makes a predictable appearance on the entrée list in the form of a nice fatty chop from Flying Pigs Farm. There’s chicken too, of course—perfectly fried, over a velvet stack of mashed potatoes. But the real specialty of this department- store restaurant is the impeccably sourced, beautifully composed seafood dishes. My fish-loving friend went slightly batty over his helping of Chatham cod, which the kitchen stacks over chopped asparagus and dresses with a citrus emulsion as smooth and creamy as melted ice cream. The shell-on, wood-oven-roasted lobster (spritzed with a lemon vinaigrette) tastes like it’s been hauled straight from the chilly waters of Maine (it has). The chile-herbed black sea bass, set in a delicious broth made with spinach leaves and Red Bliss potatoes from the Hudson Valley, is also memorably fresh.
Finding the proper balance between old-fashioned culinary artistry and the seasonal integrity of, say, a Red Bliss potato is harder than it looks. But despite the bizarre location, the slightly hokey Earth Day theatrics, and the occasional non-locavore shortcut (the prime beef is flown in from Texas), Jean-Georges and his staff manage to strike this delicate balance again and again. The only boring dessert I encountered was a little log of chocolate-chip ice-cream cake covered with too much vanilla sauce and orange sorbet. Rhubarb has come into season, so a sugary rhubarb crumble has appeared on the menu (crowned with green jasmine-tea ice cream), as has an elegant, tart-size rhubarb pie, made with a crust finished with duck fat. But the dish my guests couldn’t stop eating was the fiendishly delicious house ice-cream sundae, made with a rich chocolate sauce, scoops of peanut and salted-caramel ice cream, and a scattering of caramel popcorn. Sure, the popcorn’s a gimmick. But, like almost everything on the menu at this inventive new restaurant, it works.