May 13, 2013 | BITE: My Journal

Jean-Georges with Mariachis at ABC Cocina

Our three foodies love these crispy shrimp with nutty bits of garlic and chili oil.
Our three foodies love these crispy shrimp with nutty bits of garlic and chili oil.

          I know it’s rash to rush too soon to just-hatched restaurants, but friends at opening night assure me Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s ABC Cocina is miraculously steady, ready for critics. “It’s up and running, smooth as can be,” Cassandra reports from a table at what was Pipa for years in the 19th Street hip of ABC Home.

          Cassandra went directly from friends and family night to the official launch.  Now I’m back with her Saturday night and we’re basking in amped up service and gifts from the chef.  Not fair, I know.  Most likely you should not expect the same.

Spring peas stud this fine guacamole to spread on crunchy tortillas or puffed up chips.

          But you can definitely anticipate the same paprika-coated fried baby chickpeas, a delightful little “amuse,” and the marvelous guacamole dotted with fresh peas and unusual puffed-up taco chips. Eat them hot, because they get leathery when cool. Asparagus, ahead of the season with pickled spring onions and Marcona almonds, evokes the grilled leek-like calçots of early spring I tasted in Barcelona.

More peas in the warm and spicy empanadas and why not?  With green chili yogurt.

          We can debate whether or not a gringo has the right to rethink the empanada on this menu, mostly Latinoish, somewhat Mexican, tamely Spanishesque.  The pretty little turnovers here are stuffed with spicy spring pea mash, and meant to dip into green chili yogurt in the bowl alongside. Jean-Georges, the gringo in the spotlight, has his ABC Kitchen crew – the gifted executive chef Dan Kluger, chef de cuisine Ian Coogan, pastry chef Melody Lee – doing double duty here. For the record, Coogan is actually half Mexican.

Chef de Cuisine here, Ian Coogan, a veteran of ABC Kitchen, is half Mexican.

          Let’s just grant there’s a divide between the tacos of Zarela or what I tasted in the Yucatan, and the creative borrowings here. Still, I have no problem with the Mexican inflected dazzle of Alex Stupak at Empellon Cocina or the libertarian tacos of April Bloomfield at Salvation Taco. And I went wild for Bobby Flay’s Spanish fantasies at Bolo before he had ever set foot in Spain.

My favorites tacos are pulled pork with pickled red onions and cilantro.

          So, enjoy with my blessing these pulled pork tacos with pickled red onions and cilantro, and the glazed short rib tacos too, with frizzled onions on top and the habanero relish that could be less demure. My companions are pleased with the fried flounder taco. But I find the fish mushy. The mushroom taco with mole and kale may be too aggressively salty. Cassandra complains, so maybe they fixed that. If not, squeeze the lime. That should  help.

“Crispy” flounder tacos with aioli and cabbage-chili pickle are tasty but a bit mushy.

          I like the unexpected bite of chili heat in that pea empanada. I hope the house doesn’t decide to turn down the fire. I wonder if Jean-Georges has tamed the blasts at his Spice Market for the innocent tourists who come now. “No! Not at all,” he responds. “Those spicy chicken wings still leave people crying. There are enough non-spicy dishes for those who can’t take it.”  He rates Spice Market’s chili zap an 8 on a scale of 10. He scores ABC Cocina at 6.

A vegetable salad with shards of Manchego cheese is wonderfully fresh and crisp.

          The same Southern Hemisphere peppers, coconut, corianders and tropical fruits here are what Jean-Georges encountered in his early Thailand years cooking for his mentor, Louis Outhier, in Bangkok. They recall the Asian accents he wove into his haute French menu at Lafayette in The Drake Hotel in 1986.

A hostess strides like a goddess in white: more modest in black a few evenings later.

          I can’t recall the last time I ate at Pipa. Surely it was before its congenitally roving star chef Doug Rodriguez wandered off.  It didn’t seem to matter. The place still had fans. But as part of the ABC Kitchen deal, Jean-Georges had promised his partner, Phil Suarez, who holds both leases, to take over. It just took a few years to get there.

ABC Homes eco-champion Paulette Cole has installed LED spots and low-voltage bulbs.  

          Does the place look the same to you? Dark and whimsical, the same communal table with stools at the same bar, an under-the-sea look with seashells on the wall, the glow of jellyfish on painted brick. Look again. Paulette Cole, the passionate environmentalist landlord, has altered her signature “Miss Havisham” touch with LED and low voltage chandeliers. She scattered the shocking pink chairs willy nilly among the black. Jean-Georges gave the new tables black steel tops. The new plates are black ceramic, except for the pink pressed glass butter dishes. He likes the Barbie pink paper placemats. She wants to change them to gray.

Jean-Georges spends Tuesday night with chef de cuisine Ian Coogan in the kitchen. 

          Back again last Tuesday, I’m surprised to see Jean-Georges himself calling commands to the crew in the big open kitchen, plating food, actually delivering dishes to architect Adam Tihany’s table and ours.  His longtime partner Lois Friedman, who patrolled ABC Kitchen every night till it hit a stride, is on guard too, setting a pace, sniffing for problems.  At 10, Suarez checks in to shake hands all around. It’s not just my malfunctioning camera that makes everything so dark. I complain to Jean-Georges about the dim. Alas, he thinks it’s perfect.

I like the mildly Spanish, mildly spicy and gooey ham and cheese fritters.

          I like the gooey ham and cheese fritters with a paprika emulsion dipping sauce more than my companions. But carefully cooked shrimp with sizzling garlic bits and chili oil excites us all. We agree that maitake mushrooms with melted goat cheese and Fresno pepper vinaigrette is the triumph of the evening. Hardly a Latino notion, I would say, but a thrilling Jean-Georges market move.

Glazed short rib tacos come with habanero relish and frizzled onion.

          Arroz con pollo, the chicken and rice classic sent by the kitchen, is boring, even with chicken skin crisps.  I prefer spring vegetables with brown rice and a green sauce, and the verve of a crunchy vegetable salad with shards of Manchego cheese. Sauteed flowering greens with a sherry-shallot vinaigrette is another smart green gesture.

Passion fruit sundae is served on voluptuous petals of mango. Desserts are just $8.

          I’m not a beignet-churros fan.  But I’d order these warm fritters filled with vanilla custard just for the Mexican chocolate sea they’re anchored in.  The salted caramel “impossible” flan is impossible because the cakey batter at the bottom moves to the top when you bake and unmold it. Better by far is the passion fruit sundae with mango. And a trio of  popsicles – mango, pineapple basil, and chocolate coconut -- wrapped in cellophane and delivered in a metal rack, are perfect for the table to share.

Three or four can share these popsicles: mango, basil pineapple and chocolate coconut.

          You cannot easily confuse ABC Cocina with its next door neighbor ABC Kitchen. It’s darker, cheaper, more casual here. Cocina has a lot of professional foodies tonight because some of us can’t wait to check in, but Kitchen, in its third year, draws a tonier crowd. The women are taller. The men radiate gravitas.  Still, the food is fun, pretty good and often delicious at this soft opening stage of Cocina’s shakedown. So far, it’s not as brilliant as it can be next door. Have another excellent Margarita and groove with it.

 38 East 19th Street between Broadway and Park Avenue South. 212 677 2233 Monday to Thursday 5:30 to 10:30. Friday and Saturday till 11. Closed Sunday.

Photographs of Jean-Georges in the kitchen, crispy shrimp, ham and cheese croquettes and the fish tacos may not be used without permission from Barry Wine. All other photographs may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2012. All rights reserved

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