July 2, 2012 | BITE: My Journal

Alex Garcia Pops Up at A.G. Kitchen


Killer Burger: Sirloin-short-rib-chuck-brisket blend with cheddar, bacon and guacamole.
Killer Burger: Sirloin-short-rib-chuck-brisket blend with cheddar, bacon and guacamole.


          I’m trying not to be too excited. It’s just the second night of A.G. Kitchen after a few friends and family rehearsals. But I’m loving this food and it’s just two blocks from my place. Even though the guacamole made before our eyes takes too long and I think “medium” hot should warm up your tongue, the lime-dosed avocado mash is very good.


This could be the best cubano sandwich I’ve ever eaten (Miami stands included).


          And this may well be “NYC’s Best Cubano,” as it boasts on the menu. It’s the best I’ve ever had - layered roast pork, black forest ham, Swiss cheese and a generous skateboard of pickle tucked inside a slightly-sweet crunch of pressed Cuban bread, then carved into five or six manageable chunks and served on a wooden board. A big passel of house-fried plantain chips come piled into a wooden box alongside. They’re salty and good too.


When the fries are this good, I forgive the Latino King’s wandering in Provence.


          I know I’ll be back for the much too rich Manhattan Latin burger, even if it takes my arteries a month to recover from this one – a blissfully rare blend of sirloin, short rib, chuck and brisket stuffed with bacon, cheddar, guacamole and the chef’s secret sauce, a kind of remoulade. Although I suppose I ought to try the “Hat Trick,” with red onion, potato straws and mango ketchup.  As I said, it’s only two blocks away.


Garcia juggles gigs for Copacabana, Calle Ocho, Babalu, Havana Café, and Barrio.


          Still, I can’t help being cynical seeing Latino food star Alex Garcia tapped to be the brand, the image and the partner at A.G. Kitchen, where Columbus Tavern was such a flop. In the decades since 1994, when Garcia teamed with Douglas Rodriguez at Patria and had me fussing over Nueva Latino, and his mastery at Calle Ocho, he’s succumbed to star chef wanderlust.  A whisk-for-hire who can break a restaurateur’s just when you think you have his attention.


What is this very earnest Renaissance beauty doing on Columbus Avenue?


          Everything is riding on Garcia’s lure for the partners here, “about ninety of them,” one insider exaggerates. The menu is marketed as a mix of Latino and American comfort food, a marketable dumbing down. The place has been recast as the chef’s kitchen, with pots and pans and thrift shop collectibles on the shelves that separate dining room from noisy bar. A d.j. in the separate lounge is supposed to keep it young and lively. There is talk of more projects together, with Garcia’s Barrio Foods and Jeremy Wladis of The Restaurant Group. 


Table design tricks: Will the tower of guacamole topple before we scoop it up?


          Perhaps a little too much creativity has gone into the table top. Guacamole usually comes in a bowl for a reason. Yes, it looks different piled high as Marge Simpson’s pompadour in a tiny saucer, but big lumps fall onto the table when you poke it with a tortilla chip or even a fork. Wooden boxes or iron pans full of sides quickly fill the table and we send back the centerpiece, a wooden file box, empty now, which might one day hold Garcia recipes you can take home.


The housemade plaintain chips come in yet another wooden box with the Cubano.


          More seriously, so far Garcia and his backers can’t agree on how spicy his food should be. Garcia clearly feels uncomfortable holding back. “I think people will come wanting my food.”


The guac man rolls his cart into the room to mash the makings tableside.


          Innocents who wander in can always order the farm stand wedge salad and something from a cosmic riff on Surf n’ Turf: NY strip, bone-in short rib or prime hanger to pair willy-nilly with salmon, blue fin, shrimp or spiny lobster tail. Plus grilled tomatoes, one sauce and one-side entrees, $17 to $27.


Brazilian-style roast chicken with a dry rub is shockingly bland.


          Meanwhile, a frail elderly, elegantly coiffed blond at the table behind us – a regular at Columbus Tavern – is being fussed over by the managers. “When it’s windy, we put her in a taxi even though she lives a block away,” says Christian Post, the beverage manager. “She’s so light, a gust could knock her over.”


We didn’t think we wanted honey glazed chicken till the chef sent it out anyway.


          We’re sharing luscious bacon-wrapped dates presented on skewers in a nest of endive dressed with blue cheese and the firecracker Honduran tuna ceviche in coconut milk with ginger, but no sign of the promised jalapenos.  The chili embargo is at work here as well on the “Fiery Smashed Potatoes.” They’re deliciously doused with crema but about as combustible as a wet firecracker.


          And the AG fries, also known as Provençal fries, which come with the killer burger, are first-rate too – dosed with olive oil, parsley, garlic and Parmesan cheese.


          “Where do they get Parmesan cheese in Provence?” I ask the chef by phone the next day.


Sweet toffee pudding will do till Garcia gets around to perfecting his ice cream sandwich.


          He laughs. We didn’t get the crispy onion flowers we ordered because he hasn’t worked out the recipe yet, he confesses. And he knows the veggie burger needs work too.  The reason our waitress only offered toffee pudding, flan or chocolate donuts for dessert is because he has yet to perfect the seven layer chocolate cake, citrus pie and dulce de leche ice cream sandwich already on the menu.


          In a few days, the dessert list will reflect reality, he promises. He plans to lobby for more chili heat. And then we’ll see if he’s as smitten with our neighborhood as he insists or just passing through.


269 Columbus Avenue between 72nd and 73rd Streets. 212 873 9400. Dinner Sunday through Thursday 4 to 11 pm. Friday and Saturday till 1 am.  Lunch and brunch soon.


Photos may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2012. All freights reserved.


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