We've definitely been here before. First, there was, let's see, Society Hill, then Grille 58, then La Tesso Tana . . . a veritable parade of restaurants has come and gone in the below-ground digs at 58 W. Biddle Street near Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Then, in 2004, everything turned around. The troubled space became Abacrombie, which, under superlative executive chef Sonny Sweetman, finally flourished, garnering critical accolades and a deservedly rabid following for Sweetman's inventive New American cuisine.
End of story? Not quite yet. Only three years after signing on, Sweetman left for a dream job in his wife Melanie's native Austria. For a short while, it looked as if new executive chef Michael Putnam (who'd worked under Sweetman as sous chef) would save the day. His stint at the helm was marked by greatness, but, alas, it proved all too brief. Mere months after Putnam took over, the restaurant closed. For good, locals wondered?
Well, thank goodness, no. Welcome to Abacrombie, Act III. This time, the rescue came in the form of popular Corks chef/owner Jerry Pellegrino, who bought the restaurant late last year and promptly installed an all-female team to run the operation: executive chef Jesse Sandlin, general manager Greta Clausen, sous chef Jackie Torres, and pastry chef Sarah Acconcia. The quartet seems to be off to a good start, with a fresh, new menu that departs from Sweetman's just enough to make the transition feel like a logical segue and not a break, and a sterling wait staff that hit the ground running—a tribute to Clausen's talents.
We were happy to see that the new team has not changed much about the décor. Abacrombie's creamy ivories and beiges, softly lit with candles and graced with white tablecloths, don't really bear messing with. The muted color scheme still looks fresh and elegantly simple, enhancing the sense of a hushed atmosphere just right for romantic tête-à-têtes and murmured conversations. It's a room designed to highlight the cuisine and the company; a hotspot of hipness it's not.
There are some things we were sorry to see go, namely the old prix-fixe menu, which was a swell way to circumvent difficult decisions about what to eat and a terrific bargain to boot. However, the new menu is more voluminous than the old, with a roster of eight first courses and eight seconds, as well as a couple of sides thrown in for good measure.
The cuisine is straightforward and unfussy, with far fewer of the elegant add-ons that marked Sweetman's cooking—the emulsions, gastriques, and glazes—and absent of the Southern accents he favored. No grits, no barbecue, at least not on the winter menu Señor M and I sampled with our trio of dining companions, Charlie, Anne, and Zack.
Still, Sandlin's ingredients and style are very much in the same New American vein, although her cooking is basically high-end comfort food.
Not that all here is predictable. For example, Anne's shrimp cocktail turned out to be a pile of enormous, beautiful prawns served with their heads on and sided with a trio of house-made sauces. Smoked salmon gets the usual accompaniments of capers, onions, and crème fraîche, but it's whipped into an airy mousse and nestled in puff pastry.
Except for some raw oysters and Zack's serviceable but not particularly exciting split pea soup, the rest of the appetizers are salads, all fine, including Charlie's lovely bacon-flecked, warm spinach with an unexpected fillip of fingerlings and Gruyère.
Second courses focus on simplicity of ingredients prepared with care and conviction. It's a robust menu, mostly meat—from grilled pork chops to a massive porterhouse steak for two. Even the seafood is tuna. The vegetarian choice is similarly rich, a béchamel-based, wild mushroom lasagna with a trio of buffalo mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and ricotta cheeses.
Beef cheeks are the most unusual ingredient on the menu—Charlie, the gastronomic adventurer, leapt on those. Beef cheeks have the intensely meaty taste and texture of short ribs, and Sandlin braises them to tenderness and gilds them with a vanilla-scented, red-wine reduction, the sweetness of the vanilla providing delicate counterpoint to the robust beef.
Zack's grilled pork chop, with its excellent homemade applesauce and buttermilk fried onion rings, was a model of juicy flavor. Señor M's opulently rich confit of duck leg was paired with slices of rare, seared breast, both expertly cooked. Anne's rack of sweet and tender domestic lamb got just the slightest kick from a crust of Dijon mustard.
On the seafood side, the house-made blackening spice on my thick slab of ahi was subtle and smoky, light years beyond the heavy-handed preparations that wipe out the succulent meatiness of the tuna. All sides were terrific—particularly an airy sweet potato puree and wilted chard with the beef, and the duck's pleasantly bittersweet mash of celeriac, parsnips and carrots.
Desserts, we all agreed, achieved varying degrees of success. Zack gamely chose the Breakfast for Dessert, a combination of brioche, maple, and bacon (here in the form of toffee). It was better in theory than in fact. The bacon toffee wasn't bacon-y enough, and the brioche French toast was on the dry side.
We were undecided about the Pink Lady apple crisp, perhaps because it isn't really a crisp but a soup composed of warm apple cider, cinnamon foam, and chunks of delightfully sweet-tart Pink Lady apples. It was great, but I'd change the name.
Best of the night, we agreed, was the moist lemon polenta cake with its glaze of blood orange sauce and tiny scoop of milk sorbet. Our biggest disappointment, though, was that the milk chocolate panna cotta never arrived; no one told us it was sold out.
But that turned out to be the only service glitch of an otherwise glitch-free evening. Greta Clausen clearly knows how to groom a wait staff.
We're hoping that the new staff's enthusiasm and dedication to excellent, straightforward cuisine will make Act III of Abacrombie the charm.