While plenty of New York restaurants have lately made the environment a priority—sourcing their ingredients locally and crafting dining rooms from salvaged materials—none have done so with quite as much visual and gastronomic panache as chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s new ABC Kitchen.
The chef’s “hippie” restaurant, as he’s taken to calling it—a joint venture with his home furnishings landlord—is a stunner, as artfully merchandised as the shop that surrounds it. Everything, including the antique armoires, reclaimed-wood tables, porcelain plates and chandeliers entwined with flowering vines is gathered from area artisans.
Though the restaurant’s sustainable ethos is outlined on the back of the menu like an Al Gore polemic, the cooking, based on the most gorgeous ingredients from up and down the East Coast, delivers one message above all: Food that’s good for the planet needn’t be any less opulent, flavorful or stunning to look at. It’s haute green cuisine.
One can only imagine Vongerichten and his chef de cuisine, Dan Kluger, gleefully conjuring dishes from his seasonal bounty, some of it laid out like a Greenmarket still life on a massive table at the edge of the dining room. Perhaps there were beautiful veal scraps to play with from a small farm upstate, and so miniature meatballs were fashioned with sour cream, lemon zest, pecorino and herbs; delicate orbs tossed with house-made bow-tie pasta as fragile as silk handkerchiefs, crispy kasha and copious crme frache—kasha varnishkes for a Yiddish prince.
The ephemeral sweet shrimp came in from a supplier in Maine. Too beautiful to mess with, the chef serves them raw, simply anointed with shaved lemon zest, horseradish, olive oil and sea salt—sweet-and-sour crustacean candy.
And the littlenecks were pristine in the first days of spring. Why not toss them onto a pizza with Thai chilies, sweet onions, garlic, lemon and herbs—a clam pie to rival the one at Franny’s in Brooklyn.
Few restaurants do salads quite like ABC Kitchen, spare bouquets of miniature veggies featuring rich adornments—sour cream dolloped onto avocado and sweet roasted carrots, endives and sugar-snaps showered in champagne vinegar and shaved Reggiano—that remind you there’s a French chef behind them.
In step with fashion, the menu is a sprawling collection of small and large shareable plates—but unlike so many, it features reasonable pricing and dishes that all seem to work well together. After passing around pastas, salads, maybe a bowl of fried calamari—beautifully encrusted with crushed Martin’s Pretzels, lending an extra-crispy saline crunch—you might covet an entre all for yourself. A supremely buttery arctic char fillet, featuring skin that’s as crisp as a kettle-fried chip and nutty florets of roasted Romanesco, is certainly worth hoarding. As is a flattened golden roasted half chicken, its juicy flesh bathed in a vinegary glaze with wilted escarole and heady, butter-sopped potato puree.
Desserts, displayed in a caf that bleeds into ABC Carpet & Home—it will open soon as a stand-alone nook for breakfast and lunch—include the world’s most sophisticated ice cream cake (a chocolate-chip ice cream roulade with crystallized almonds and orange zest) and an equally dazzling brown butter tart with toasted hazelnuts and chocolate ganache.
While some diners might be drawn to ABC Kitchen for its politics—the soap is organic, leftovers composted, herbs snipped from the rooftop garden—if you strip away the rhetoric, you’re left with a beautiful restaurant, offering food that’s as distinctive as it is thrilling.
Drink this: The herbaceous Green Kitchen ($12), a bracing mix of grapefruit juice, tarragon syrup and organic gin, goes down like a potent health tonic. Among the well-priced natural wines by the glass: a tart, mineral Domaine Chidaine sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley ($9) and a velvety Hermanos Sastre tempranillo from the Ribera del Duero ($12).
Eat this: Bow-tie pasta with kasha and veal meatballs, raw Maine shrimp, clam pizza, arctic char with Romanesco, ice cream cake
Sit here: The sprawling restaurant offers drop-in seating at the bustling bar and the tables around it. Call ahead to score a spot in the dining room, where the best seats are up near the half-exposed kitchen.
Conversation piece: Among the local artists and artisans who contributed to the restaurant’s modern wood-nymph decor (many pieces are sold in ABC Carpet & Home): Jan Burtz (handmade porcelain plates), Jim Denney (recycled-wood tables), Eric Slayton (steel and concrete art installations) and Elena Lyakir (abstract nature photography).