The Natural Restaurant Comes of Age

Randy is resetting tables, a stack of gray linens in her hand. She wears a blue flannel shirt and black pants under her white apron. Her hair is long, plaited black, her skin pale and freckled. She has a strong chin that seems to guide her walk, her sneakered feet padding across the dining room. From one table, a gaggle of executive assistants wanders out as a tall blond heads back to hers (narrow rhinestone tiara headband, macramé shawl, denim microshorts and high-heeled rope sandals).
   ABC Kitchen is a white room—white walls, white tables and chairs—where chef-restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten has staked out territory in the ever-expanding natural food movement. It's one of a spate of restaurants recently opened in New York that features organic foods and natural wine. This is not a new concept: Counter has been doing it well in the East Village since 2003; as has Cookshop, which opened more recently in Chelsea. But the new wave of organically minded places makes no noise about choosing this route. Terroir Tribeca, the offshoot of Marco Canora and Paul Grieco's tiny wine bar Terroir in the East Village, largely lists natural wines but makes little fuss about it; Anfora, a winebar neighboring dell'anima, does as well. Both were instant magnets for hipster wine geeks.
   What separates ABC Kitchen is the mainstream obliviousness of it all. At one level, this is a dining room for women, a place to shop as you sup, with the chairs, the chandeliers, the barstools and the linens available at ABC Carpet & Home, the emporium visible through the glass at the far end of the room. Or maybe it's more for men, the ceiling stripped to 19th century beams, the pipes stripped to black to affect a post industrial look, and a dining room filled with women dressed in various shades of chic. Either way, there is nothing about the space, the menu or the crowd that shouts natural or organic. It is all underplayed.
   Until you get to the food. The roasted carrot salad with avocado and spice uses roasting juice from the carrots to prepare the vinaigrette. Its carrot and spice flavors don't let go, like turmeric gone wild. The mackerel is as pristine as the sashimi at the finest sushi bars in town. And everyone orders the peekytoe crab toast for a reason—fresh crab smothering whole grain sourdough toast that's deliciously crunchy (and not at all granola-under-your-Birkenstocks crunchy).
   The wine list is limited to two pages of organic and/or biodynamic wines, carefully selected by Bernard Sun, who recently received the James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine Service (see p. 12). He's listed some well–known names like Gravner and Joly, and a lot of less obvious choices. As he helps us sort through the list, he says he finds that organic produce offers brighter, more intense flavors, while organic wine can be more of a challenge. "When the wine is stinky, it's really stinky," he says. "The organic wines don't pull any punches." Still, he managed to find enough wines he believes in that are certified organic or biodynamic or moving toward it. "If I see a winery that's practicing biodynamics but isn't certified, I'm okay with that," he adds. "Biodynamic wines cost three times as much to make, and a lot of these growers are small guys with limited production. I have to keep replacing wines that run out of stock."
   Sun had brought a basil-lime daiquiri to the table, a drink he designed after tasting basil-lime sorbet in Piedmont. "That sorbet stuck in my head," Sun recalls. "I came back and asked chef, 'Can you make me a basil-lime syrup that's clear?' and he said yes. The daiquiri is a forgotten cocktail, one that gets overlooked for no reason." His daiquiri is refreshing and subtly complex—perhaps more compelling due to the organic limes, he suggests. "They cost $78 a case compared to $38 a case for conventionally farmed limes, but they taste completely different."
   According to Sun, every detail they could manage is green, down to the dishwashing detergent and the recycled plates and silverware they purchased off of eBay. Or the Akaushi beef used for a New York strip, from a breed of cow that has never been genetically altered. He describes it as an "heirloom cow."
   Sun helps us narrow down our choice to a Sancerre from Vincent Gaudry, the 2007 Le Tournebride. It is as refreshing as the roasted beet salad, a bowl filled with vibrant color, housemade yogurt, microgreens and beet sprouts. Again, refreshing and clean, with a taste of the earth, on both counts.
   At the end of the night, after the chic and their consorts had cleared out, Sun insists that we try dessert, recalling how he and chef Jean-Georges had tasted Cindy Bearman's chocolate cake with toasted marshmallow icing and immediately wanted to hire her as the pastry chef. And when Randy brings over a slice for the table, it is addictive, like the idealized form of diner food. It is savory rather than sweet, chocolatey and substantial. Especially when you hit the vein of malted chocolate ganache in the middle. Like other aspects of the restaurant, I would likely think of this as satisfying before I ever thought of it as "natural." Nobody seems to have come here on a health quest. And yet I leave feeling healthily sated rather than stuffed, and thinking of all the people I want to tell about the cake. The list is unnaturally long.
—Joshua Greene