Edible (and Branded) Content: ABC Cocina Buys the Farm, Sells the Table—and the Results Are Perfection

The catalog-like interior at ABC Cocina.

The catalog-like interior at ABC Cocina.

I arrived in New York City at the turn of the century, and I’ve been writing professionally—or at least for pay—ever since. In the decade-plus that I’ve been fortunate enough to make a living as a writer, I’ve seen scores of publications fold up like origami cranes and fly away. Some vanish in the night (the dad model). Others peter out (the old-soldier model). Weeklies go quarterly; dailies go away.

In the gloaming, the siren of commerce often calls, and I’ve watched colleagues flee from journalism to put their skills to use for brands, gradually at first, but in a rush these last few years. Where once there was Radar, now there’s Ralph Lauren Magazine or the J.Crew Tumblr. Where once there was Nylon, now there’s the online magazine for Aritzia. There was once news. Now there’s Nowness. There were once newsletters. Now there are catalogs. It’s capitalism’s gain but journalism’s loss.

This tectonic shift seems particularly salient right about now. This is the first review I’ve written since news came down that the Village Voice, which has made a habit of ritual staffing seppuku, fired its longtime restaurant critic Robert Sietsema, and that Tejal Rao, another award-winning restaurant critic at the paper, had quit. Their unceremoniously burnt ends and uncertain futures—Eater.com had not yet announced that Mr. Sietsema would join its staff—weighed heavily as I visited ABC Cocina, the newest outpost of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s global restaurant empire.

The restaurant, which opened a few weeks ago, looks lifted from a high-end interior design catalog. The space is dark and cavernous, warm and inviting, with a professional beauty.

Hot pink Thonet chairs, pushed under vintage Parisian tables, offer pops of color. Sofa benches made from septuagenarian Anatolian grain sacks form the banquette. Seashells and glass-studded wasp combs are embedded into the concrete walls. Paulette Cole, the CEO of ABC Carpet & Home, describes it as “feminine.” (I would say it is feminine only in the way all warm caves are feminine; it’s what I imagine the inside of L’Origine du Monde looks like on a particularly groovy night.)

Both ABC Kitchen and ABC Cocina are housed in and partially owned by ABC Carpet & Home, a home furnishings company founded in 1897. Nearly everything in the restaurant is for sale, from the chairs ($195) to the sofa bench ($8,995) to the wasp combs ($450-$750). So if it looks like a catalog, it’s because it is one.

Does it matter that ABC Cocina, a restaurant, is an advertisement for ABC Carpet & Home, a home furnishings store, or that its food and ambiance are Absolutely Branded Content? That depends on what’s really being sold.

On the most superficial level, ABC Cocina is simply a tremendously inventive and subtle pan-Latin-inspired farm-to-table restaurant. None of the chefs’ surnames end in vowels—though Ian Coogan, the chef de cuisine, is half-Mexican—but it feels authentic.

Dan Kluger, the polar-bear genius behind ABC Kitchen, and Mr. Vongerichten, the French genie who floats above him like a disembodied Gaussian blur, aren’t aping a taqueria or
paella-frontin’. Instead, they gingerly graft the rigorous sourcing and ingredient-driven philosophy of ABC Kitchen with the pantries of Latin America.

The menu is large but simple, carefully but not overly wrought. It draws inspiration from what looks like the route plan for Iberia airlines: lots of Mexico, some Chile, a ton from Spain and a dose of Nueva York. There are six sections. Three with ampersands—they sound like Sherwin Williams paints: “Light & Bright,” “Gold & Crispy” and “Masa & Tortillas”—and three without: “table snacks,” “wood burning grill” and a sleeper section called simply “rice.” There are over 40 items in sum. I couldn’t try everything, but everything I did try was excellent, full of both expected pleasure and the pleasure of the unexpected.

The guacamole ($11) is doted upon and, in a way pools aren’t, made exponentially better with the addition of some pea. One part tristate peas to two parts avocados, studded with jalapeño and spring onion, topped with toasted sunflower seeds and fresh spring peas, the guacamole is hot and fresh and surprising.

That equipoise between heat and balm is the signature of ABC Cocina. It’s to be found in everything, from a small dish of warm marinated olives ($7), wherein a chili-cumin marinade heats and a
poblano-pistachio-mint pesto cools, to the fluke, served raw, cured in kombu sliced thin, drizzled with a chili ferment and then salved with mint zest.

The dipping sauce that accompanies a pair of pretty spring-pea empanadas ($6) does both at once. It’s made of fermented jalapeño yogurt and is a little painful and soothing in one bite, like in that Crystals song, “He dipped me and it felt like a kiss.”

For every delicately balanced Jenga tower of flavor, there are aggressive go-ahead dishes for those left cold by subtlety. The maitake mushroom combines a woodsy meatiness, thanks to a mythopoeic sojourn in the wood-burning
grill, and a tempering creaminess, thanks to a glop of cheese from a herd of Connecticut show goats, that even the most torpid can appreciate. Gooey spicy ham and cheese fritters ($10), tiny fried disco balls, are the Studio 54 of tapas, but much more welcoming.

Like a Diego Rivera mural, all the tacos are painted in broad strokes and bright colors. But to the suitably attuned, there’s subtlety to be found. The savory glazed short-rib tacos ($14) are a case in point. A hot pink dash of pickled onions, which incidentally match the Thonet chair, set off an interplay among the sweet char, the corn masa and the epic crunch of a frizzled onion. “A taco is just a vehicle,” Mr. Vongerichten told me, “for flavor.”

He spoke to me from Shanghai, where he was visiting Mercato, his Italian restaurant on the Bund, and his chef there, Sandy Yoon, a French-trained Korean-American woman. None of that is incidental.

One of the things that make ABC Cocina successful is how Mr. Vongerichten uses globetrotting empire-building to gleefully cross-fertilize. He’s like a bee in a global meadow. “I came to Shanghai with 30 recipes to teach my chefs,” he said, “I expect them to present me with 20 I can bring home.”

That cross-cultural body of knowledge is on most brilliant display at ABC Cocina in Mr. Vongerichten’s deft handling of heat and his mastery of chili, both skills he picked up in Asia. “There are many of the same flavors in Asian and Latin flavors,” he said.

Without being preachy about it, Mr. Vongerichten uses global knowledge, local ingredients and great skill to make the case that all three are necessary for greatness.

That’s essentially the same argument ABC Carpet and Home makes. Since 2003, when Ms. Cole became CEO, it has used sustainable practices, ethical sourcing and an active philanthropic arm to argue that the relationship between business and politics need not be deleterious. “At ABC,” said Ms. Cole, “we want to show doing business in a socially conscious way is not only positive for humanity but profitable too.” So, you know, that’s good.

But along the way, the ABCs—for the kitchen and cocina are just an embodiment of the carpet and home—make an even more stirring and, to me, hopeful argument: not all catalogs are liars, not all brands bullies or showrooms false. This goes back to the fates of Mr. Sietsema and Ms. Rao, and to the scores of huddled editorial refugees welcomed into the arms of the great corporate colossus. Perhaps—not certainly, but certainly maybe—the transformations of writers and editors (and chefs and restaurateurs) to company men isn’t a zero-sum game. Maybe we can all win.

That’s a tough sell for a leftie like me, but at ABC Cocina, where the farm’s for sale, the table’s for sale and the sofa’s for sale, I’m buying it all.