The cocktails were wheat grass-green. The drinks sat on coasters made from recycled cardboard. My overcooked pork chop also did a fine impression of recycled cardboard coasters.
The menus were printed on “post-consumer fiber” using “no new trees.” When multiple washings still hadn’t got rid of the scent of the bathroom’s lavender soap, I devoured sweet chicken liver toasts; they concealed the floral stink with a meaty perfume.
So goes an evening at ABC Kitchen, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s occasionally awful, sometimes outstanding and always environmentally friendly new restaurant in Manhattan’s Flatiron District. It’s the type of place where Al Gore and Jane Goodall might snack on lemony, wood-roasted fiddlehead ferns.
It’s also the type of place that makes me want to crush a tulip.
Jean-Georges leans a bit too far forward when bowing to our solar zeitgeist. The back of the menu reads like a parody of greenism, explaining that the “curation” includes pesticide-free candles and bread baskets “handcrafted by the indigenous Mapuche people of Patagonia,” a description so detailed the waiters should actually remember to bring you bread.
The “Green Kitchen” cocktail is a ghastly mix of gin, tarragon, Pernod and grapefruit; I suppose it’s a good approximation of what the restaurant’s “all organic cleaning products” must taste like. That could be why a bartender advises against ordering it. Instead, you try lemonade with vodka and thyme, which tastes little of lemon or vodka or thyme.
ABC Kitchen epitomizes the global empire of the three-Michelin-starred Vongerichten, where life-changing dishes share table time with food that should never have been allowed out of the kitchen.
Mushrooms must’ve been steamed in grease; there’s no other way to describe the slimy fungi. Bigoli pasta was so salty as to be inedible. A side dish of endive, ham and gruyere was baked into bland, watery submission. Overcooked lobster’s claws had a Styrofoam-like mealiness.
The venue’s in the vast, Martha Stewartish ABC Carpet & Home store. If the restaurant were empty, which it never is, it would look like another showroom, with exposed filament light bulbs, white tables and white chairs. Make a reservation to avoid the 90-minute wait and to avoid the so-so counter service. One night I saw Jean-Georges himself seem to give up on getting the bartender’s attention.
Gourmet pizzas are the new gourmet burgers. Vongerichten has been tossing pies for over a decade. His wood-fired versions aren’t the city’s best, but they come close. Expect a kick from briny clams, spicy chilies and cool mint pulling your taste buds in different, wonderful directions, all atop a whole-wheat crust.
Margherita pies balance the comfort of mozzarella and the tang of tomatoes. No scorching from the heat. Not too much drooping of the crust. Does it need salt? There’s a ramekin of fleur de sel in front of you.
Vongerichten mostly abandons his French-Asian fusion fare here in favor of seasonal, composed American dishes in the vein of Blue Hill or Colicchio & Sons. Still, there are clever signature twists. Whole carrots look raw, until you cut the roasted roots with a spoon. They’re scented with cumin. Halibut almost flakes itself into a pool of asparagus broth.
Raw shrimp bite back with horseradish. A chili-spiked marinara imparts a welcome dose of acid to fried squid. Jalapenos, their heat pickled out of them, crown a forgettable burger.
Meat, fish and dairy are “locally sourced where possible,” which can read more like a caveat than a pledge when we learn of the Akaushi, a “genetically pure” strip steak of Japanese descent. It comes to us via Texas. I’m told it has more omega-3s then salmon. Still, the thin, $35 cut has much less depth of flavor than dry-aged meats elsewhere. Vongerichten should work quickly to improve ABC Kitchen, before his patrons toss one of those steaks into the recycle bin.
The Bloomberg Questions
Cost? Almost everything’s under $30.
Sound level? About 70-75.
Date place? Yes.
Inside tip? Try the crispy, fatty, juicy chicken over vinegared escarole and mashed potatoes.
Special feature? Stunning desserts, like a salty ice-cream sundae and a shockingly sour rhubarb crumble scented with jasmine-tea ice cream.
Will I be back? For the pizza.
ABC Kitchen is at 35 E. 18th St., near Broadway. Information: +1-212-475-5829; http://www.abckitchennyc.com
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. No stars Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels):
51 to 55: Church on a weekday. 56 to 60: The vegetable aisle at the Food Emporium. 61 to 65: Keyboards clacking at the office. 66 to 70: My alarm clock when it goes off inches from my ear. 71 to 75: Corner deli at lunchtime. 76 to 80: Back of a taxi with advertisements at full volume. 81 to 85: Loud, crowded subway with announcements.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)