I typically use Restaurant Week as an inexpensive way to check out a fine dining establishment I haven’t had a chance to try, a way to test the waters with just a little toe dip instead of a full-body dive. However, even though I tried Abacus for the first time at Restaurant Week last year, a return visit was in order after the Iron Chef Battle Elk episode and the restaurant’s complete interior remodel following Chef Rathbun’s Iron Chef victory (bye bye 1980′s southwestern booth seating).
The fabric covering on the seats may have traded in passe busy patterns for neutral and airy, but the Restaurant Week menu still presented many of the same selections from the previous year. This year’s menu included more choices for the first and second courses, but the dessert course was a no-choice sampler. Similar to previous years (and a tradition that will likely continue), Abacus places an hour and half time limit on Restaurant Week reservations in order to maximize the number of patrons served during this charitable time. That’s no problem with me, I’m not coming to Restaurant Week for a nice dinner complete with thoughtful conversation. My dining companion is one whose sentence I can finish before he even starts, as much as he seems to dislike that little habit. Wine pairings for the three course meal are available for $30/person, but recalling how buzzed I was after downing three glasses of wine in the course of a little over an hour last year, I dared not to take on that challenge again. I opted for a peartini (not too sweet and not too tart) and my companion had the taste highlight of the evening, el diablo, a tequila drink mixed with lime juice and ginger. The beverage starts out smooth but tingles at the back of your tongue with a concentrated punch of ginger.
Did I give too much away by calling a specialty cocktail the highlight of the evening? Well, the rest of the evening wasn’t terrible, but the theme for the night seemed to be “sloppy.”
We started the evening with the Central Market bonus course. You guessed it, lobster shooters. Like last year, I found the boldly flavorful broth to be overwhelming for the fried lobster balls. I would much prefer something more delicate that doesn’t hide the taste of the lobster. Additionally, on this evening, the broth was just lukewarm and the chewy fried lobster balls tasted like they sat out a little too long before being served. The details didn’t come together for this dish on this evening, but I still like the concept (and longed for the version I had last year).
Onto the appetizers:
My starter was the seared diver scallop with Meyer lemon risotto and white asparagus in shellfish butter sauce. For the sake that it was Restaurant Week, I won’t dwell on the fact that this was one of the smallest scallops I’ve seen in a fine dining restaurant in… well, ever. Portion size issues aside, the scallop was almost burnt to a crisp on top. Once you start working that addictively rich shellfish butter sauce with the food, though, you could almost forget the unfortunate texture of the scallop. Risotto was perfectly creamy with the occasional crunch of the white asparagus. Again, love the concept of the dish, but execution was sloppy this evening.
Across the table, buffalo-shiitake potstickers. This was probably the only savory dish whose concept didn’t make sense to me. The description sounded creative and appealing on the menu, but when the potstickers came out, the delicate skins on half of the potstickers were broken (on the bottom). Additionally, the skin was limp and slimy, and thus had a greasy-like mouthfeel. A generous streak of too-sweet plum sauce topped the potstickers and overwhelmed the flavor of the filling. When you scrape off the plum sauce topping, the flavor of the buffalo and shiitake combination comes through as smokey but balanced. Loving the flavor concept of the filling but not the way the dish was carried out, I asked myself what I would do differently. First, I would attempt a more substantial skin on the potstickers, more like the chewy dry fry (versus steam first, then fry) skin of sheng jian bao (by the way, post about Yang’s Fry Dumplings in Shanghai coming in future China trip posts, I promise!!!). Then, I would go for a hoisin-based sauce rather than plum-based sauce, served on the side rather than slathered on top, giving the diner the option of using more or less sauce, and saving the potsticker skin from growing limp under the moisture of the sauce. I think that style of potsticker/dumpling would make more sense in the tradition of Asian cooking, but perhaps the fusion cuisine loving masses aren’t ready to veer from generic, sugar-heavy pan-Asian style?
Intermezzo was a tall shot of watermelon slushy, similar to the raspberry limeade spritzer idea from last year.
Entrees fared better.
Pan seared cod with parsnip puree and artichoke in a tomato butter sauce, and no, I didn’t take a bite out of the fish before taking the picture. The barely-holding-it-together cod fillet is yet another example of kitchen sloppiness. Nonetheless, the flavor combinations in this dish were just amazing: crispy, moist, flakey fish on top of thick parsnip puree with crunchy artichoke chunks, all topped with an unforgettable tomato butter sauce. It’s not complicated food, just great tasting food.
Braise beef short rib was a small, but deliciously tender and moist, serving. Port wine sauce that topped the short rib and mushrooms was a little light on port flavor but unified the dish nicely. The awkward half under-cooked, half over-cooked layered potato au gratin square was the only misstep in the dish. It was just hard to eat and the Parmesan flavor was too subtle to detect.
The dessert sampler presented to every Restaurant Week diner was the least impressive course of the evening.
I realize doing a sampler like this, where each item can be prepared ahead of time, is time and labor efficient for Restaurant Week. But these pastries are more suited for a country club banquet than a fine dining restaurant. From left to right: pecan blondie, cheesecake with raspberry sauce, Vahlrona cream sandwich, mini red velvet cupcake, and Scharffenberger Kit-Kat. It’s not that anything was particularly bad, just nothing really stood out. The richly nutty pecan blondie was probably the best of the bunch with the Kit-Kat being the most disappointing, it just tasted like dense, too-dry chocolate cake. I would’ve much preferred a quality single dessert rather than five mediocre pastries.
I did notice Chef Rathbun making the rounds in the dining room as we were leaving, a nice touch.
Overall thoughts? I can attribute the sloppy kitchen errors and the bare-bones service to Restaurant Week exhaustion and overload, but choice of certain ingredients (smaller scallops) and no-choice, unimpressive dessert sampler (which probably oohs and ahhs the inexperienced diner with “variety”) seem to indicate that Abacus is tailoring its Restaurant Week menu to patrons that they don’t anticipate will return during regular times. It may be a smart tactic, since the non-returning patron seems to be in the majority during Restaurant Week anyway. As Abacus’ Restaurant Week menu grows more and more a faint shadow of the restaurant’s actual capabilities, I think I will no longer be visiting during these hectic times. I know I love the ideas and flavor combinations in these dishes as all impressed except the potstickers. Thus, in a round-about and almost unintentional way, Restaurant Week at Abacus has made me want to return during non-Restaurant Week.
Link to last year’s Restaurant Week visit to Abacus: http://donnacooks.wordpress.com/2007/08/21/restaurant-week-at-abacus/