Phil Suarez and abc - 2010
New York restaurateur Phil Suarez has one of the highest batting averages of anyone I have come across in this universally precarious business.
Over the past 30 years he has opened more than 40 restaurants and admits to only one conspicuous failure. His current business card folds out into three to give the details of the 30 restaurants his company, Suarez Restaurant Group, currently manages: 12 in New York City, the others as far afield as Doha and Shanghai with a London outpost of Spice Market due to open in the W Hotel on London's Leicester Square in February 2011.
Suarez, 69, has achieved this principally by being the business partner behind the hugely talented Alsace-born chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who has been cooking in New York since the late 1980s. And while their established successes range from the three-star Michelin Jean Georges restaurant on Central Park to the more relaxed Mercer Kitchen in SoHo, it is unlikely that any will set such precedents as their most recent opening, abc kitchen underneath the ABC Carpet and Home store just north of Union Square.
Over a breakfast of an egg-white-only omelette at Maialino in the Gramercy Park Hotel, the extremely dapper Suarez, who at 3.30 pm that afternoon, along with Vongerichten, was going to ring the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange and discourse on why he continues to feel so optimistic about the hospitality industry, was quick to pass the credit for abc kitchen's immediate success to his partners.
'The directors of ABC have been conspicuously green in their approach to the environment for a long time and Jean-Georges has been preaching the virtues of locally sourced ingredients ever since I have known him. After all, that is what he grew up with in France. The restaurant is really the happy confluence of these two sets of individuals', he added, with a broad smile while running his hands down the still unbuttoned jacket of an expertly cut pinstripe suit.
But abc kitchen is in fact far more than that. First of all, and despite its rather low-key name, it boasts a most elegant interior via its main entrance on E18th Street. Exposed wooden beams to the ceiling, creatively chosen period furniture and crockery, comfortable chairs, white tables and walls, the latter interspersed with large, frameless black-and-white photos, and subtle lighting, all combine to create a stage setting that is both friendly and exciting.
The expectation of a good meal is accentuated by the presence of an open kitchen in the far corner and the name of the experienced chef, Dan Kluger, on the menu. But it is the menu itself that sets new precedents because it is, unusually, both terse and verbose.
The two pieces of paper that constitute the clearly and elegantly designed menu, stiffened by a thin piece of cardboard in the middle and held together by a couple of bulldog clips, reveal in great detail the names of all those who have provided the ingredients and their origins. But it does so without a trace of pomposity or preaching. It simply exudes an air that this is how urban restaurants ought to and have to operate today, even if abc kitchen does have the luxury of a farmers' market only a block away.
The food is described with mouthwatering terseness, no descriptor longer than half a dozen words but each dish imbued with strong and distinct flavours. The crab with lemon aioli and roast squash with ricotta and apple cider vinegar, both served on bread from the Sullivan Street Bakery, were simply irresistible, as was the dish of beetroots with housemade yoghurt, the raw diver scallops with chilies and anise hyssop and a highly spiced roasted carrot, avocado and citrus salad. It is entirely in keeping that the long overlooked omelette should be on the lunchtime menu and this version, happily with egg yolks as well as spinach and goats' cheese, was excellent.
Suarez recognises that the popularity of this restaurant is directly related to his and Vongerichten's only significant failure, when they had to close their steakhouse, V, in the Time Warner building. 'Image is so important in this city', he admitted, 'and here we strayed too far from what New Yorkers expect when they walk into a steak restaurant.'
Suarez claims that his role is merely to provide the functional aspects of the restaurant, leaving the creative aspect to his chefs, and that he is completely open minded as to how the eventual deal is struck, either under license, as a management contract or as a lease.
This is Suarez's second successful career, his first was in commercials and music videos, when he, and partner Bob Giraldi, were responsible for the original Michael Jackson films. He admitted that an eye for talent is a common factor but one leading restaurateur explained to me that there is no one to rival Suarez when it comes to the practice of 'shake-a-hand-pat-a-back' that is such an integral part of doing business in New York.
As we parted, I asked Suarez whether any other career could have given him greater pleasure. 'Perhaps as a top sportsman', he responded, 'but I'm not sure. Opening a successful restaurant is just so rewarding.'