ABC Vegetarian pronounces its vibe immediately. From the white walls and high ceilings to the soft-pink pastel of the servers’ shirts to the occasional sighting of a Ganesh statue, you can see this becoming the go-to lunch spot for wealthy yogis who wander over after a noon class at Dharma Yoga or Jivamukti. It practically screams “luxurious tranquility.”
Ever since Pure Food & Wine’s 2015 closure, New York has lacked a clubhouse for this kind of crowd. The first vegetarian outing from chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten — his latest in the ABC Carpet & Home complex, following ABC Kitchen and ABC Cocina — certainly appears to provide the perfect replacement: Sip a restorative brain tonic; munch on a dosa served with yogurt, avocado, and sprouts; consider a $400 throw pillow as you walk it off through the store. Vongerichten even brought in Neal Harden, formerly of Pure Food & Wine, to serve as chef de cuisine (as well as sous-chef Natasha Agrawal, late of shuttered Brooklyn casual-vegan spot M.O.B.).
The location for the much-anticipated new spot might not come as a surprise, particularly given the ABC sister restaurants’ proximity to the Union Square Greenmarket. Vegetarian offerings have tended to thrive in this neighborhood; Pure and Zen Palate were longtime fixtures; John Fraser’s comparably priced NIX, which just earned a Michelin star, is a ten-minute walk away; and ABC Kitchen has always been vegetable-forward. “Vegetables can stand on their own,” Vongerichten said at the time of abcV’s opening; the menu here provides that declaration compelling support.
For starters, abcV makes for an exceptional, if expensive, place for a morning or midday meeting. Breakfast offerings include $15 gluten-free almond pancakes or poached eggs; the $48 “Beauty and Wellness” lunch menu — a succession of chef’s selections — represents a bigger splurge, though you’ll likely leave with leftovers. The latter starts with dips, an essential part of the all-plant diet: The green-chickpea hummus, topped with fava beans and served with a fluffy homemade pita, boasts a mellow flavor that breaks into a wave of garlic, while a thick and tangy bowl of labneh drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with herbs comes with root vegetable chips and raw radishes, radicchio, and lettuces, all apt vehicles for its richness, allowing you to choose your comfortable level of caloric intake.
That richness points to a new understanding of virtuous, good-for-you eating that doesn’t shy away from fat but still celebrates sourcing and seasonality. You don’t have to worry about the food here being bland steamed greens and brown rice. Spice, acidity, texture, and good funk are the true stars of vegetarian cooking, and the kitchen here knows how to use them (each table also gets a small bowl of fermented-chile sambal that punches up and complements nearly every dish). Salty whipped sunchoke punches up a warm plate of sautéed greens; a butter of nuts and seeds does likewise for a bowl of roasted carrots. Avocado lettuce cups brim with sweet potato and (for crunch) pepita, and the beluga lentils with medallions of broccoli stem get a boost from black vinegar. One of the heartiest dishes features wild-mushroom burdock noodles, meaty tempeh (sourced from local maker Barry’s Tempeh), and pickles — a filling blast of umami that feels a bit out of place in spring, but works nonetheless.
At dinner, though, the menu loses much of its luster, simply because it doesn’t sufficiently shake things up. The chef’s-selection menu goes up in price by $10, but you get the same quantity of many of the same dishes. Service, too, becomes a bit lacking: The bread you’d requested may never arrive, and, if you’re a walk-in, you might be warned that you’ll be booted from your table after an hour. One new dish offered, a salad of strawberry and radicchio, attempted to harmonize on those sweet and bitter notes, yet failed to provide a bridge between them. As for the cocktails, there’s nothing too thrilling about a matcha-infused variation on the piña colada (even with the use of excellent Due North rum). To chat over an array of dips and small dishes works at lunch. For dinner, one hopes for more of an occasion. See, again, the nearby NIX, which has overlapping lunch and dinner menus but varies their offerings enough to effect a significant shift in mood. You eat a beet burger at lunch, a hearty potato gnocchi at dinner.
Still, there is, for abcV, a happy ending: Dessert, no matter what the time of day, shines. A vegan chocolate mousse made with coconut milk is thick yet airy, with surprising mint chocolate cookie crumbles on the bottom and gluten-free vanilla wafers on the side. A vanilla bean coconut custard with a healthy serving of dragonfruit, kumquat, kiwi, strawberry, and pineapple comes together like a vacation on a plate. Given the sting when the bill drops, such a strong finish acts as a salve on the wound.
38 East 19th Street
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 3, 2017
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