When was the last time you were at ABC Kitchen? If it’s been a while, you might find yourself wondering, “What’s different?” on your next visit, as you eat crab toast amongst a room full of people who also love Pinterest.
After nearly five years in business, not much on the surface has changed at this well-regarded restaurant. It’s still rustic, it’s still pretty, and it’s still crowded. But it’s also definitely not the same as it used to be - specifically when it comes to the food. All of the most popular ABC Kitchen items are still featured on the menu, as are the expected rotation of highly seasonal vegetable dishes. But the quality has deteriorated since chef Dan Kluger left. And that’s why we’re here with an updated review.
Before we go too far down the rabbit hole, let’s be clear that ABC Kitchen is still a good restaurant. If you’re looking for a Date Night destination or place to take someone who is good at business in the Union Square area, this is a decent option. The staff is nice, and the atmosphere is tough to beat. But it simply isn’t among the best of the best in this city anymore. And I think I have an explanation as to why.
ABC Kitchen is a Jean-Georges restaurant. His name is listed first at the bottom of the menu, with the title of “Chef/Proprietor.” But we all know that he’s not anywhere near this kitchen most of the time. As a matter of fact, I saw the dude in Miami not all that long ago, roaming the floor at one of his new hotel cafes. There’s nothing wrong with that - most of us who eat out frequently are not naive to the fact that the chef whose name is on the press release is rarely the one doing the actual cooking. And Jean-Georges is no rookie when it comes to running several establishments at once. But the first thing I noticed during my recent ABC Kitchen meals was that my dinner seemed automated. Like a robot had been set to “farm-to-table” mode with the purpose of making carrot avocado salad at scale, to be serviced from one central location to all JG restaurants that feature it on the menu.
To some extent, that’s what’s happening. Many of the ABC Kitchen dishes are now featured on other menus around the country, like Inn at Pound Ridge, and his places in Miami. They’re not as good there, either. Ultimately, I just don’t think high-end, high concept food like this is scalable, and I think ABC Kitchen is a great example of that. Out goes Dan Kluger, and out goes the quality. And it feels like the new executive chef they brought in has simply been handed the playbook - hired to replicate what was already working. The result is food that lacks a personal touch.
Here’s an idea. Instead of making kale salad and crab toast in large quantities, how about we set that robot to “In-N-Out” and start replicating those around the East Coast. That’s scalability I can get behind.
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Probably the most famous ABC Kitchen dish, this crab toast with lemon aioli is still the best thing on the menu. Order one per person.
Roasted Kabocha Squash Toast
Nope. Too dense, and way too sweet. The squash is super starchy, as is the thick whole grain bread it’s served on. I think this may still be sitting at the bottom of my stomach.
Maybe one of the most obvious examples of a lack of quality control. Our kale salad here was straight up bad. The kale ribbons were soggy and cut too thick, and the dressing had little flavor other than raw lemon juice. No thanks.
Roast Carrot & Avocado Salad
Twice we had this well-known salad dish, and twice the carrots were overcooked to the point of being straight mush. The flavor is still good, with a nice spicy and citrusy kick. Another example of the execution problems at hand.
We’ve never been crazy about this one. The pretzel crust is cool, but it’s still sort of just calamari.
Bowtie Pasta With Kasha & Veal Meatballs
This pasta has been on the menu since the beginning, and it’s still very good. Proceed.
Whole Wheat Pizza With Tomatoes & Buffalo Mozzarella
A tasty little pizza that works well as something to share amongst the table. It doesn’t taste as much like whole wheat crust as you might expect.
Black Sea Bass With Chiles and Herbs
Fish is always a decent move here, but this bass probably won’t blow your mind. Let’s call it “safe.”
Fried Organic Chicken
Probably the best thing we’ve had at ABC Kitchen recently. The chicken has a sort of tempura-like fry on it, and it’s served in a hot sauce butter that I would drink like a milkshake if I wasn’t certain it would kill me.