Friday, July 22, 2011

Mark Birnbaum Opens Abe & Arthur's in NYC

Not Grandpa’s favorite dish

With sophisticated food, Abe & Arthur’s is no delicatessen.

It’s refreshingly sweet that a trio of canny private clubiers—EMM’s Eugene Remm, Mark Birnbaum and Michael Hirtenstein—would name their first restaurant gamble for their grandfathers.

Abe & Arthur’s may sound like a delicatessen, but on this rainy Thursday night it’s a hive of hipsters and heel-totterers. At 11 p.m., most restaurants are winding down these frugal nights, but in this just-hatched chicklet in the meatpacking district, where Lotus once ruled, waiters race to reset tables for a coven of nocturnal pretties and the lotharios that stride in their wake. On the floor below, SL, for Simyone Lounge, celebrates a third grandfather.

A few days ago, our foursome was almost alone in the low-lit dinge, with only an aggressive sound system competing in the just-opened spot. Franklin Becker, a chef I’ve been following for years, was the draw for me. It wasn’t easy to find the pointedly discreet entrance, and once inside, I found the scrims draped on weathered walls, the black-on-black reflected in black mirrors, handsome, moody and mysterious.

Then with my first bite of popover—crusty and lush, salty, buttery and cheesy (Gruyère, pecorino and manchego)—my taste buds click on the alert. The place may look like drinking and mating, but it tastes like a restaurant. We study and debate how to divvy up the menu, a roster of comfort and the familiar, from $9 for lobster bisque to $38 for 14 ounces of dry-aged strip.

Perhaps the garlicky steamed mussels tucked under grilled country bread in the black iron pot could be plumper, and the day-boat cod with “various cabbages” and puffed rice might be a tad less cooked.

But I’m thrilled by a pair of crab cakes—jumbo lumps of crab barely held together with Old Bay-curried mayonnaise, then pan-sautéed and served on summer corn with red pepper sauce—and the nutty, caramelized sea scallops, delicately cooked and (unnecessarily) crowned with a square of foie gras on a purée of cauliflower and almond. Super-rich mac & cheese with a crackle of brown butter crumbs is right on beat, with a crust just like Mom’s. A generous square of brownie oozing chocolate ganache with malted-milk ice cream, plus a big iron pot of “apple Tatin cobbler,” clinches the seduction.

If they turn up the lights and tone down the music, grown-ups who care about eating might want to come, I thought, as we staggered through the inky black to 14th Street. Usually I leave a new restaurant hoping the kitchen will shape up. Here the only direction to go is downhill. By the time I check in 10 days later, the die is cast. Mickey Rourke, Sean Penn and Russell Simmons have already come by, the chef tells me, explaining why he is already cooking for 450 many nights.

It’s party night Thursday, with tables of 14 or so getting drunk and hollering to each other as if they are the world. Even the balcony is stuffed. So we’re shouting across our table, interrupted by the miracle of the popovers, gone, alas, long before appetizers arrive. Finally, through the manic melee come crab cakes, as luscious as before, juicy sliders and lobster bisque poured from a small pitcher over lobster bits and green apple. Of course the mac & cheese is a must: perfect again.

Branzino, the whole fish of the day, comes boned with just the tail left on to hold it together. Tonight, as our chocolate brownie Vesuvius arrives, one noisy rabble has been evicted for another. It’s almost 11 and the tall, skinny women are tottering in as we pack up. Much as I’ll long for those popovers and fine crab cakes, it’s no country for old fuddy-duddies like us.

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