Abbey Road to Morocco
At one time the Abbey Hotel's lobby must have been a graceful space for guests to dawdle in, but not anymore. It's stripped to bare essentials (desk, stairway, elevator), all relegated to the left side of the dapper, Deco, 52-seat Abbey Dining Room. The restaurant resembles a swank supper club: eggshell-color walls contrasted by dark brown trim, tables set crisply in white, large picture windows on the right side of the room facing a patio with additional tables. A cozy bar tucked in the far end of the dining area attracted a capacity crowd on the nights we visited, but the rest of the place was practically empty. That's too bad, because Chef Phillippe Baguette has smoothly transferred his Moroccan-inspired Mediterranean cuisine from Café Tabac to the Abbey, where he's come up with a concise, enticing, and sensibly priced menu.
Less sensible are two of the five starters: white bean bruschetta and hummus on grilled ciabatta. Both are based on bread and come on the heels of a complimentary plate of soft sourdough slices with oregano and parsley spread. The bruschetta also happened to be the dullest dish we tried. Great Northern beans were supposed to be enhanced by "mixed peppers, balsamic vinegar, and shaved Parmesan on arugula with grilled garlic bread"; the first three ingredients, however, were all but nonexistent, the arugula a wispy basil-size leaf and the croutons bereft of grill and garlic flavor. I doubt even prison inmates greet beans on bread with great enthusiasm, so it's not surprising that our table of four managed to finish just two of the three toasts between us. The only other disappointment we encountered was "green" garbanzo soup. For one thing it was red. We should have guessed as much after reading the menu description of "puréed chickpeas with garlic, tomatoes, onions, and spices." Why call it green? A more substantial negative would be the thick grainy texture, like tomato sauce with hummus whisked in.
The rest of Abbey's road is smoothly paved, starting with potato-anchovy pancake, a crackly CD-size disk of darkly caramelized potato slices delectably flecked with garlic and oregano, topped with a triplet of sautéed fresh anchovy fillets. Grilled octopus salad elicited even higher accolades from our group, the tender tentacles and rings tossed with crisp fennel sticks, red peppers, red onions, pine nuts, and a scintillating olive oil, lime juice, and cilantro dressing. After the last of the pine nuts were picked from the plate, our waiter startled us with an intermezzo of champagne sorbet, served in what appeared to be mini egg cups. A lemon-mint sorbet on the second visit lacked the element of surprise but was still a thoughtful touch.
Chicken tagine is a North African entrée named for the glazed-earthenware dish with conical lid in which the pieces of poultry get slowly baked, in this case with couscous, green olives, wedges of preserved lemon, and bits of onion, fennel, peppers, and zucchini. Chunks of chicken on the bone retained an impressive amount of moistness while cooking in the tagine, and the flavors, though perhaps a bit pungent for the average American palate, proved intensely satisfying after the first few familiarizing bites. A different couscous, this time flecked with dried fruit, gets paired with grilled Moroccan merguez sausages, but even with additional accompaniments of lightly dressed arugula salad and cucumber sauce for dipping, the four piquant lanky links make for a rather one-dimensional main course; a smaller serving might work better as an appetizer. Portions otherwise are just right -- we cleaned our plates and felt fulfilled.
Most of Abbey's seafood gets flown in fresh from Spain, making these the most desirable entrées from which to choose. Three such imports sparkle: striped bass grilled and served whole with herb-roasted potatoes; grouper sautéed with tomatoes, potatoes, black olives, and lemon juice; and a succulent turbot with thick sticks of delicious fried polenta in blood-orange sauce. A trio of monkfish fillets, which do not come from overseas, are elevated, literally, by a mound of creamy parsnip purée, and figuratively by a fresh fig sauce that just barely limbos under the line of cloyingness. All main courses are priced at less than $20 (except for verbally rendered specials, where prices are protected by a "don't ask, don't tell" policy), including normally high-end meals such as eight-ounce loin of lamb; and bouillabaisse with monkfish, turbot, grouper, mussels, and shrimp. The two vegetarian entrées cost less than $10: grilled vegetable plate with pesto sauce; and fettuccine with fresh mozzarella and cherry tomatoes sautéed with basil, garlic, and olive oil. The al dente pasta was robustly flavored and generously dished into a deep white bowl. Add a $6 goat cheese, orange, and arugula salad with balsamic vinaigrette and you've got a splendid meal for less than $16 (splurge with a glass of wine for $7 to $9).
Whoever coined the phrase "you can never be too rich" apparently never sampled the Chocolate Marquise. Dense semisoft logs of orange, almond, and mint-imbued chocolate terrine come plated with raspberry squiggles in the form of a musical scale, the notes played by well-placed blueberries (quite lovely, really, even if it does suggest a struggling artist slumming as a pastry chef). The dessert didn't hit the right chords for my own tastes, but I'm biased on this account -- chocolate terrines strike me as being nothing more than refined attempts at taking the fun out of fudge. Chocoholics and citrus enthusiasts will likely enjoy this dessert nonetheless, and just about anyone will be satisfied by five puffy, cleanly fried fig beignets delicately dusted in powdered sugar. Chances are good that most people also will be satisfied by the tasty food, fair prices, congenial service, and civilized ambiance the Abbey Dining Room has to offer.
The only thing this restaurant is missing right now is customers; if you go, it won't be.
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