38 East 19th Street
New York, NY 10003
Once a restaurateur perfects the food that he or she becomes famous for and earns a Michelin star or two, it is not uncommon for that individual to go on a culinary walkabout and expand their palate. Daniel Boulud expanded from French into chic hamburgers, Mario Batali went from Italian to Spanish tapas, David Chang went from ramen to milkshakes, and Paula Deen went from sugar-glazed chicken-fried steak with a caramel demiglaze and a rich chocolate nougat center to insulin shots. Jean Georges Vongerichten is perhaps one of the most prolific of the Tranformer-Class with a resume of restaurants long enough to practically demand that his menus have a calorie count. Anyway, this is all beside the point. This particular Friday evening, I found myself lucky enough to have scored a table at ABC Cocina, Mr. Vongerichten's 19th Street latin fusion spot inside of ABC Carpet & Home, New York City's fusion department store..
ABC Cocina is, alongside Rosa Mexicano and Dos Caminos, where New Yorkers go when they want trendy MexoLatin food, served in a fashionable way, where price is a secondary consideration, and where they can be among The Beautiful. I'd say that four times in the past I was given a wait time of over an hour. There were simply that many of The Beautiful eating here. Well, not this time. This time FIT was having spring break and Easter was coming and they skipped town to go to wherever they came from and I got the last available OpenTable seat of the evening.
The host was very nice and led me to my table even though I was early. I ordered a Brooklyn Ale and browsed the menu while waiting for Speeds. Lo didst mine eye come upon chicken soup with vegetables and lime. I tore myself up inside about whether to order this when the time came. But at the end of the day, I decided that I couldn't. About a year ago, I went with my then-girlfriend Myna to the tiny Pio Pio outpost on Woodhaven Boulevard. It sits maybe ten people and we squeezed into tiny table by the window, practically touching thighs with the guests next to us. The lines are out the door on a regular basis. They serve primarily Peruvian-style roast chicken - and trust me when I say that it's the best in the city- as well as a chicken soup with vegetables and lime that is so fantastically good that I just knew that this variant would be setting myself up for disappointment. Not only could it not possibly be as good, but because it cots three times as much per bowl, I'd get angry at ABC Cocina for fucking me and, in my opinion, it's unfair to write a review geared toward disappointment and failure (unless it's the Guy Fieri place in Times Square and then all bets are off).
Our waiter, who won't win any bedside manner awards, explained that given the small-plates nature of the menu, the restaurant recommends ordering six dishes. He was not wrong. When ABC Cocina tells you that they serve small plates, they don't kid around. We ordered five, plus dessert.
Speeds showed up, ordered a sangria, and we got to business. "Let's skip the guacamole, it's not very good. They put something weird in it." She had been here before, and I wasn't about to argue. So no guac. First up, the Apple and Celery Root Salad with chili and cumin yogurt. Such a great salad to welcome the warmer weather. Very light and very sweet. The celery root had a pleasant bitter tang and the yogurt balanced it all out. Every so often I'd bite into a tiny jalapeno and it would light my mouth in fire. I found this pleasant. Speeds found it less so. ABC Cocina serves a la carte oysters and we ordered a half dozen of whatever variety of Oysters on the Half Shell they had chosen for the evening. The oysters were fine, as most oyster are, but not memorable. They came with a very small trio of sauce to allow you to futz with the taste. Oil, lime, and hot pepper. The hot pepper wasn't very hot, and the lime not being as sharp as the lemon slice that you'd get at a more traditional raw bar kind of got lost. I didn't add oil to my oyster. The third dish was an off-menu special. Seared Steak Tacos with cilantro, chilies, and lime. First things first, the tacos were good. The steak was very flavorful and will leave you far from disappointed in that regard, though the taco shells were a little thin got sorta soggy. But here's the thing. Tacos are basically street food. And when I say that I literally mean that when I want a taco, I go outside of my building and 'round the corner is a taco truck. The taco truck guys I go to will give me a fantastic taco, loaded down with cilantro and lime and boiling hot peppers and radish and onion for three or four bucks. Given that we got two, each taco cost $10. I can't recommend a $10 taco that doesn't make me faint.
The best course of the evening was the Charred Diver Scallops with coconut and roasted cauliflower. The scallops were almost as soft as flan and amazingly delicious. The cauliflower was mostly there for color. Each scallop is approximately 1 and a half inches in diameter, so, having eaten one, I had plenty of room for dessert. Finally, another delicious choice, the Patatas Bravas, fried potato course, served with a rosemary aioli and a spicy-tangy sauce was excellent. Crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, made even better with the sauce. For sure you should order this as well.
For dessert, the Tres Leches Cake with rhubarb meringue and a rhubarb compote. We still had some drink in our glasses so no coffee this time. The cake was delicious. Light, fluffy, tangy, guiltless. Actually, the whole meal was relatively light. Either the dishes were healthy or small enough that their relative unhealthiness was far from being an issue. Or both.
So, the atmosphere was good. Not too loud, not too dark, not too obnoxious. The wait staff who weren't our waiters were very nice. The thing is the price. If you're only interested in the atmosphere and the ability to brag about where you ate or the potential added traffic that writing a review will generate for your blog, then it's fine. But for what you're getting, which isn't a heckuva lot, it's too expensive for a normal dinner and Rosa Mexicano actually winds up being a better value... which I can't believe I just said.
Four drinks, five plates, one dessert, plus tax and tip came to $183.