October 19, 2009 | BITE: My Journal
Abe & Arthur’s: Not Your Grandpa’s Favorite Dish
Shooting sauce into the interactive donuts evokes delusions of Ferran Adria. Photo: Steven Richter
It’s refreshingly sweet that a trio of canny private clubiers – EMM’s Eugene Remm, Mark Birnbaum and Michael Hirtenstein - would name their first restaurant gambol for their grandfathers. Abe & Arthur’s may sound like a delicatessen, but on this rainy Thursday night it’s a hive of hipsters and heel-totterers. At 11 p.m. most restaurants are winding down these frugal nights, but in this just-hatched chicklet in the meatpacking district where Lotus once ruled, waiters race to reset tables for a coven of nocturnal pretties and the Lotharios that stride in their wake. On the floor below SL, for Simyone Lounge, celebrates a third grandfather.
Soon the tall women will be trooping in. Photo: Steven Richter
To think that ten days ago our foursome was almost alone in the low-lit dinge, with only an aggressive sound system competing in the just opened spot. Franklin Becker, a chef I’ve been following for years, was the draw for me. It wasn’t easy to find the pointedly discreet entrance, but once inside, we were warmly greeted as if we had not totally strayed from our milieu.
Bypass the buttery popovers with gougère ambition? Never! Photo: Steven Richter.
I found the scrims draped on weathered walls, the black on black, reflected in black mirrors, handsome, moody and mysterious. The space babies hadn’t flown in yet. Our only competition was that sound system. With my first bite of popover – crusty and lush, salty, buttery and cheesy (Gruyere, pecorino and manchego) - kept warm from the oven in their napkin bunting, my taste buds click on the alert. The place may look like drinking and mating but it tastes like a restaurant. We study and debate how to divvy up the menu, a roster of comfort and the familiar, from $9 for lobster bisque to $38 for 14 oz. of dry-aged strip.
Our waiter recommends the “interactive fun” tuna tartare. Photo: Steven Richter
“I recommend the tuna tartare tacos,” the waiter interjects. “It’s a fun, interactive dish, a ‘Share Plate.’ A fun way to start the evening.”
“We’re not into interactive,” I chastise him as my pals giggle and roll their eyes. “How many tacos?” I ask. Three, he responds.
“But we’re four. How about the sliders?” I ask.
“How is that a dish for four to share?”
“Get two orders,” he advises, quite pleased with his ability to multiply.
Nothing ruffles my feathers more these days than items billed as “Share Plates” that aren’t. And I’m not about to spend $24 to interactivate the evening with sliders.
Becker’s marvelous crab cakes are comfort with a twist. Photo: Steven Richter
But apparently we’ve been recognized at the door and the chef knows we’re here so it’s a cinch to get an extra taco thrown on what turns out to be a not exhaustingly overactive starter – zesty cubes of raw tuna with avocado to mound in a taco and dab with red chili aioli. Our friend from China wants oysters. Only three of us eat meat so the kitchen slips us an extra slider: rare Black Angus patty stuffed with cheddar, topped with bacon and a slice of cherry tomato.
Foie gras-topped scallops sit on cauliflower-almond puree. Photo: Steven Richter
Perhaps the garlicky steamed mussels tucked under grilled country bread in the black iron pot could be plumper and the day-boat cod with “various cabbages” and puffed rice might be a tad less cooked (we didn’t specify, I confess). But I’m thrilled by a pair of crab cakes – jumbo lumps of crab barely held together with Old Bay-curried mayonnaise, then pan-sautéed and served on summer corn with red pepper sauce - and the nutty, caramelized sea scallops, delicately cooked and (unnecessarily) crowned with a square of foie gras on a purée of cauliflower and almond. Super rich mac & cheese with a crackle of brown butter crumbs is right on beat for me with a crust just like Mom’s. And a generous square of brownie oozing chocolate ganache with malted milk ice cream plus a big iron pot of “apple Tatin cobbler” cinches the seduction.
Franklin Becker squeezes lemon on “gift-wrapped” salmon rolls. Photo: Steven Richter
If they turn up the lights and tone down the music, grownups that care about eating might want to come, I thought, as we staggered through the inky black to 14th Street. Usually I leave a new restaurant hoping the kitchen will shape up. Tonight we’ve had Becker focused on us and a visit from pastry chef Gustavo Tzoc, who majored in playfulness with David Burke. Here the only direction to go is downhill. By the time I check in ten days later, the die is cast. Mickey Rourke, Sean Penn and Russell Simmons have already come by, the chef tells me, explaining why he is already cooking for 450 many nights. He’s especially impressed by Pink, “the biggest booker of models,” who moves like a lion in a pride of guess what?
Luscious cod on puffed rice alongside the splendid macaroni. Photo: Steven Richter
It’s party night Thursday, with tables of 14 or so getting drunk and hollering to each other as if they are the world. Even the balcony is stuffed. So we’re shouting across our table, interrupted by the miracle of the popovers, gone alas, long before appetizers arrive. I’m sure we could ask for more but we’re brainwashed to be sane. Finally, through the manic melée come crab cakes, as luscious as before, and lobster bisque poured from a small pitcher over lobster bits and green apple. Three of us are dividing two juicy sliders and a passel of Beth’s meatballs smothered in a sauce sweetened with dried cranberries, perfect for sharing, though definitely too sweet. Beth, it seems, is Mark’s mother. “It’s her holiday recipe,” the chef tells me later. “But I added pork to the mix so they’re not kosher anymore.” Of course the mac & cheese is a must: perfect again.
Double-cut wood-smoked pork chop with black cherry compote. Photo: Steven Richter
Branzino, the whole fish of the day, comes boned (comfort, comfort, comfort) with just the tail left on to hold it together. And though the wood smoked Heritage pork chop might have been pinker, it’s juicy enough and flavorful, served in heated black iron (“It’s hot,” we’re warned) with black cherry compote and Brussel sprouts that are properly cooked, neither rawish or mushy. In the two years it took to get Abe & Arthur's open, the partners auditioned a handful of chefs and chose Becker, Birnbaum confides, because he was a veteran who could handle the hoped-for masses, because he was open to criticism and because he understood what they wanted even when they couldn’t put it in words. Comfort food, familiars with a twist, a menu with options at varying prices: Entrées from $23 to $36. When I blurt out that I think $12 is greedy for desserts, Becker registers surprise. “They were supposed to be $10,” he tells me. “Let’s make them $10.”
Tonight, as our chocolate brownie Vesuvius arrives, one noisy rabble has finally been evicted for another. It’s almost 11 and the tall, skinny women are tottering in - the same stately beauties we’ve spotted latish at Standard Grill and Hotel Griffou - as we pack up to leave. We linger to comfort ourselves with “The Carnival,” a Ferris wheel of donuts made with ricotta batter Becker insists we experience. The runner leans in to explain: In miniature squirt bottles are lemon curd and strawberry-raspberry sauce. We must choose and squeeze, injecting directly into a warm donut, then dip into a puddle of dark peppermint chocolate. Did I protest we’re not into tricks? I don’t really like donuts but now one isn’t enough. After all, there are two sauces.
"Interactive is what people want these days,” pastry chef Tzoc assures me. Is it possible that Spain’s much imitated gamesman Ferran Adria is scoring here on West 14th Street?
Dinner only Sunday 6 to 10 pm, Monday and Tuesday to 11 pm, Wednesday and Thursday to midnight, Friday and Saturday till 1 am. 409 West 14th Street 646 289 3930