ABC Cocina, with its $12 burger tacos, makes me wonder how much stoner talk preceded the opening of this curious effort from the Jean-Georges Vongerichten global restaurant empire.
Tucked inside ABC Carpet & Home in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, Cocina makes a few contributions to the uneasy world of Frankenfoods that includes the hugely popular cronuts and Doritos Locos, Taco Bell’s Tex-Mex-junk food hybrid.
If only ABC’s “slider tacos” were as well thought out.
Chef Dan Kluger takes an underseasoned mound of Akaushi beef, places it into a corn tortilla and tops it with McDonald’s-style special sauce.
The result: A terrible taco and burger in one heavy, mushy disaster.
Diners should expect more from Vongerichten, one of the original gangstas of fusion, merging high-end French and Asian sensibilities that won him three Michelin stars at his flagship off Columbus Circle.
We also expect more from Kluger, whose work at ABC Kitchen next door has earned him a reputation as one of our most innovative vegetable chefs.
For now, ABC Cocina is a hit-or-miss affair, a small-plates spot that’s mostly Spanish, occasionally Mexican and sometimes American, all set in a sort-of-exclusive-looking environment of gorgeously mismatched chandeliers.
Most of its seats are booked 31-days in advance.
Some will wonder whether it’s worth thinking about $12 chicken tacos a month out. It’s dry and bland, and whatever meat Kluger uses has about as much flavor as day-old cutlets from the corner deli.
Italian-Americans use marinara sauce to cut the oil of fried calamari. Kluger instead tops his crispy but undersalted squid with ancho chili glaze. The cloying result is a mouthful of sugar in each bite.
No table? No problem. Your walk-in party might be sandwiched between the communal area and the bar, a preposterously narrow space where share plates might remain for virtually an entire meal. Outside tables are also available.
My pina colada was served in a martini glass, not blended or poured over crushed ice, which means there’s nothing to thin out the milky drink and keep it cold. Cost: $15.
And while comparatively priced libations are increasingly the norm, there’s something disingenuous about charging $14 for average sangria.
Better is the $14 albarino, which, like other wines here, is poured out of sight, no tasting offered. Pair the vino with pea guacamole ($11), packing gentle heat, sharp onions and bright cilantro, and things become quite pleasant.
Then you order the one-note hot garlic shrimp ($13), and the cold white shrimp in “agua diablo,” ($12) a preparation that gives the crustaceans the flavor and texture of Styrofoam.
Seared tuna with habanero, paprika and orange zest is more middling than those accouterments promise.
Things improve with snap-pea soup, a verdant hot puree with a bit of creme fraiche to keep the vegetal sugars in check. Heirloom tomatoes sparkle with vinegar and collapse in the mouth like Jell-O.
And raw fluke with green chili dressing exemplifies Jean-George’s precise balance of intense acid, wicked heat and powerful herbs.
Short rib tacos sport a rich, nutty glaze and a dollop of habanero salsa that could pass muster at any good street stand. Pulled-pork tacos show Kluger’s A-game too, a soft mount of musky pig tempered with pickled red onions.
Then there are BLT tacos, with cherry tomatoes over cubes of pork so overcooked they were pitch black, as if they’d been dropped over charcoal and forgotten about. No more Frankenfood, okay, Kluger?
Beef tenderloin “burnt ends” ($18) soak up what could be the city’s best chimichurri, bursting with the clean aromas of garlic and cilantro. And arroz con pollo ($19), despite over-salting, is more memorable than this mainstay usually is.
Finish with flan (or don’t -- it’s no great shakes). With a spate of excellent Spanish cooking at venues like Tertulia and La Vara, as well as fine modern Mexican at Empellon, the Jean-Georges mashup of both cuisines is mostly a skip.
The Bloomberg Questions:
Price: Most small plates under $20
Sound Level: Loud, anywhere from 70-75 decibels.
Date Place: Not at the communal table.
Inside Tip: Excellent slow-cooked halibut and onion-carrot stew.
Special Feature: Paprika-dusted chickpeas are tasty freebies.
Back on my own dime? No.
ABC Cocina is at 38 East 19th. Information: +1-212-677-2233 or http://www.abccocinanyc.com.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor
Sound-Level (in decibels): 51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse. 56 to 60: Speak up. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: You’re yelling. 76 to 85: Eat, don’t talk.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Tumblr at www.thepricehike.com or www.thebaddeal.com.)
Muse highlights include Greg Evans on TV and Katya Kazakina on hot art.