Once it was Lotus, a trendy trilevel disco, about which a female detractor once wrote, “As soon as you walk in, you’re instantly swamped by pretentious, idiotic guys who think it’s OK to grab your backside!!” It seems like a sign of the times that where once stumbled dissolute clubgoers swilling $300 bottles of champagne now sit the solid burghers of Chelsea and the West Village, tucking into roast chicken, chops, and whole fish.
There’s little backside-grabbing going on at Abe & Arthur’s. The main floor is devoted to an expansive barroom, leading to a dramatic, two-story dining room. Around the top runs a balcony, where my date and I sat on our first visit, surveying a half-filled restaurant. Giant cylindrical light baffles hung like space stations at eye level, and the room was surrounded by a scrim, limned with faded images that recalled prehistoric pictographs, or maybe Wassily Kandinsky. Adjacent to the balcony sprawled another large barroom—proving, at least, that the alcoholic function of Lotus remains entirely intact.
The menu has been described as comfort food, of which the best, paradoxically, has French underpinnings. We oohed and aahed when our chicken liver mousse ($12) floated in on a plank of distressed wood, which looked like it had been wrenched from the wall long ago by an inebriated disco patron. On it rested a pile of perfectly grilled toasts, a wad of deeply caramelized onions, a campfire of split cornichons, and a shot glass of coarsely puréed filter organ. To get at the liver, we had to pierce a layer of white schmaltz that lay on top like ice on a frozen pond. Oh, how the schmaltz goosed up the flavor!
Several other apps were similarly impressive. The lobster bisque was crustacean perfection, a deeply pink broth that the waiter poured from a pitcher over a generous wad of fluffy white meat dotted with chives. It made you stop and wonder—how do they deliver such a bowl of soup for only $9? The pot of steamed mussels was also quite a bargain at $12. Another evening, a friend loved the spinach and artichoke dip; she was especially relieved that it wasn’t made with sour cream and Knorr soup mix.
But there were some painfully stupid starters, too. At this point, how could a pair of sliders be anything but boring? So were “Beth’s meatballs,” a trio of orbs without any apparent seasoning, deposited in a tomato sauce so thick that bread wouldn’t sop it up. Both apps were clearly intended to appeal to those who demand meat for every course. For the rest of us, the salads make a great kick-off: The Caesar was properly salty, fishy, and eggy, while the beet and goat cheese assemblage was totally edible—even though you’ve already seen it dozens of times before. Served with a corn-and-red-pepper piperade, the pair of small crab cakes proved pricey ($18), but delicious.
You’d do well to make a meal of apps. Not that the mains aren’t also good—they’re just not a good deal. I’d skip the “day-boat” cod, because the fish is endangered even if you catch it off the pier with a rope of snot and a safety pin. The farm-raised branzino ($29) is a better choice, though the fish is small for the price. The seared scallops taste fabulous, caramelized topside, dotted with bits of melting foie gras, and nestled on a cauliflower purée—but then again, maybe you ordered seafood because you didn’t feel like eating fatty clumps of liver.
An entirely different menu devotes itself to meat, and suddenly you realize that maybe Abe & Arthur’s wish they owned a steakhouse. The thick grilled pork chop was fab, despite lolling in a black-cherry glaze, while the porterhouse for two ($72) clearly constituted a prime cut of meat. But if you’re spending those kinds of bucks on steak, why not go to a real steakhouse?
On our third visit, the place seemed to be in a state of flux. Small tables of locals were being replaced by big busloads of conventioneers. When we arrived at six and asked for an unreserved table, the greeter got all huffy, and showed us to a cramped table near the door, even though tables were available on the balcony. The waiter was awful, too, a supercilious cad who repeated everything we said as if it were a question. “We’re skipping dessert tonight,” I said, as he tried to set a pair of small menus before us. “Are we skipping dessert tonight?” he spit out, his voice dripping with sarcasm. We flashed our sweetest smiles and got the hell out of there.
For more of our restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road