Sangria and Iberian dishes at Alphabet Kitchen


By Lauren Fouda

In this weather, it’s impossible not to crave sangria. But the perfect summer fantasy isn’t completely fulfilled without a rooftop terrace or a patio on which to enjoy it. So what’s a Manhattan apartment dweller with no roof access to do in this situation?

The answer: make a reservation at Avenue A’s Alphabet Kitchen, where tables in the garden are coveted but not unreachable, provided you plan ahead. The terrace is one of Alphabet City’s best-kept secrets.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the restaurant’s indoor seating, which boasts a whimsical alphabet mural near the entrance; a dramatic open kitchen with sexy red lighting and dark, intimate banquettes. But being available year round, they lack the ephemeral quality that makes the garden so tantalizing. A rickety table outside, surrounded by hanging plants, lamps, and appealingly graffiti-ed walls, is so gratifying that you almost feel like you’ve been invited to a seasonally appropriate dinner party.

The food, too, carries off the dinner party vibe, as if your culinarily-adventurous host had a few secret recipes under his belt but bit off more than he could chew. It makes for an uneven but overall enjoyable experience.

While relishing a pitcher of sangria the appetizers arrive with a flourish. The staff is friendly, but disorganized. They are laid back as if the host of the party had roped them in to pass around the food. But, the lackadaisical service is actually welcome here, because by hanging around to joke with us as we order, the waitstaff make us feel that they’re just friends of friends we haven’t met before.

The first to arrive is “indibias con cabrales,” a salad of endive and baby greens with roasted beets, spiced walnuts, cabrales, and citrus vinaigrette. It is a nice take on the classic beets-walnuts-blue cheese combination with a particularly sharp and tangy Iberian cheese. It’s disorienting only because the aforementioned vinaigrette actually boasted stronger mustard flavors than citrus.

A chicken tortilla, however, came off as too creamy, unlike the fluffy little Iberian omelet. To make matters worse, the texture was further enhanced by a bland, cafeteria-reminiscent flavor which made us slightly anxious about our next few courses.

For a Spanish restaurant, some of the traditional Iberian items are not inspired. Although the kitchen stumbles over dishes that should be second nature, it regains footing on the menu’s most innovative dishes. There was a terrific salmao grelhado (grilled salmon) with summer vegetables, one of the many Portuguese-style dishes that made us wonder why the kitchen doesn’t just focus altogether on western Iberia. The crispy, salty fish was accented nicely by an assortment of sharp, clean greens for a full-on assault of fresh flavors, and the plate was coated with a slick, fragrant coating of coconut truffle essence to add complexity and a welcome depth to the dish.

The dense, cheesecake-like coconut tart packs more of a punch than its tiny stature would suggest, and it topped with a densely whipped dollop of cream and surrounded by a teasing little drizzle of raspberry port sauce.

All in all, the experience at Alphabet Kitchen is an A to Z amalgamation that probably comes off more successfully than your friend’s rooftop party ever could.

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