Kent Rathbun, Executive Chef and Owner of Abacus and Jasper's, has had a busy year. In February, he and his brother Kevin, a chef-restauranteur in Atlanta, bested Chef Bobby Flay on the season premiere of the Food Network's hit series "Iron Chef America." More recently, the Texan Rathbun has also just nailed down the lease for a fourth Jasper's, coming soon to San Antonio. And in April, Abacus underwent a complete renovation that somehow very nicely balances some seeming contradictions: the dining room has a mininalist feel, yet it is also invitingly comfortable. It's got clean lines, and yet it is sumptuous. I don't pretend to understand design, but the colors, textures, lighting, and materials and fixtures come together in the most important way that I do appreciate--as a convivial diner: I want to take my friends to eat in this restaurant.
Chef Rathbun and I meet in the new bar and lounge area of the restaurant. Although it's the middle of the afternoon, there's a nice buzz among the cooks doing the early prep and the staff readying the dining room and organizing reservations. Before the renovation, the bar and lounge space was smaller and functioned primarily as a waiting area for the dining room. Now there is plenty of space and more lounge furniture: the restauranteur's idea is that people will come to Abacus for drinks and the nightlife, even if they don't plan on dining. And if one drink leads to another and a customer develops an appetite, there is an extensive and impressive bar menu that includes a wide selection of Asian dishes, artisan cheeses, and desserts.
For those with a greater hunger--or perhaps curious to try an entrée like the Chili Rubbed Elk Loin (the brothers Rathbun battled the Iron Chef over what they could do with a side of elk)--I'm betting the hostess can be accomodating either in the bar or restaurant proper.
In the recent renovation, even the restaurant menu was completely overhauled--except for the Caeser Salad and the Lobster "Shooters," two items which Rathbun says are such a part of the Abacus tradition that he couldn't replace them without inviting a rebellion from diners.
Abacus' Sous Chef (and Red Sox fan) Omar Flores comes by our table to say hello, and he's bearing two plates of food.
Rathbun invites me to dig into the first dish without identifying the other...which of course not only delays my gratification but makes me all the more curious about what exactly is on the artfully-plated second dish. All in good time, I figure, and slide the first plate over. Rathbun calls it a "Spanish-style takeoff on paella...but fancied up." The most obvious upgrade to the paella: two plump scallops from the Georges Bank, dusted with pimentón (Spanish paprika), then pan-seared in olive oil.
In my youth, after hearing about what a delicacy scallops are, I finally tried them in a fancy restaurant. And was disappointed. My Cajun-trained palate just didn't get what was so great about the mollusks. But these Abacus scallops are delicious. As is the paella, which is based on saffron rice and includes chorizo, onion, bell pepper, a sherry wine butter sauce, fried artichoke, water cress, and a few other things that I don't catch from Chef Rathbun's description. (I'm too busy eating.) Cajun babies don't eat paella but they do know flavorful rice dishes. And although my people might regard it as heresy, I much prefer this Abacus dish to any jambalaya I've ever eaten.
Fresh New England scallops and Spanish paella may seem a little exotic for a chef who started out cooking at a economy-priced chain restaurant in Kansas City, but the Rathbun boys actually enjoyed an early introduction to foods beyond their Midwestern horizons. The chef tells me that when he was growing up his parents liked to host foreign exchange students, and the guests he remembers best were the children of Thai chefs. Some of the tricks and tastes he picked up from the exchange students stuck. When he was part of the culinary team at the Landmark Restaurant in the Dallas Melrose Hotel in the 1990s, the hotel sent him to Bangkok on several occasions to cook in an associated luxury restaurant. He tells me that while he learned "a lot" during his time in Thailand, he also discovered that he already knew quite a bit about Thai flavors and how to get to those flavors.
He was sent to Bangkok to bring some Texas to Thailand; he wound up bringing some Thailand back when he returned to Texas.
I ask him about this "fusion" in his cuisine, even though I really do know better than to use that often misused and abused concept. Rathbun quickly but politely corrects me. He avoids the term--"fusion sometimes equals confusion"--and he says he prefers to call his menu "eclectic" or "world cuisine." He serves Thai, Spanish, Japanese, and other foods--even "home boy" cuisine--yet, in the Spanish scallop paella, for example, the Abacus diner won't find anything that he or she wouldn't find in Spain.
Rathbun tells me he started cooking in a Denny's-like restaurant as a teenager, and I say I'm surprised that the experience didn't put him off cooking for life. He makes no defense for the food at that diner, but says it was a "helluva training ground: I'd have toast in the toaster for a BLT, six pancakes on a grill, two poached eggs in a pot, steaks on the grill, a waffle in the waffle-iron, and fried chicken in the fryer...all cooking at the same time for the same table." And, he says, "that happened all the time." He laughs about it now, and says he learned a lot cooking like that: "you need to know what you're doing, you need to be prepped, you need to understand efficiencies, and you need to be able to multitask...a lot."
Later, when we're talking about his time in New Orleans in the kitchen of Mr. B's, I catch echoes of these early cooking lessons. Rathbun says he went from "being a young cook to being a chef" while working at Mr. B's, and he tells me about the challenges of "high-level cooking with good ingredients, put together on the fly." (Chef Thomas Wolfe of Peristyle recently told me a very similar tale about his time in the Mr. B's kitchen.)
Having dispatched the scallops and paella, I turn to the second plate. We've jostled the table and ruined the presentation; now I have absolutely no reason not to dig in. Rathbun tells me this dish appears on the menu as “Bacon and Eggs.” That label is technically accurate, though I've never eaten such a mouth-watering version of this classic dish. More precisely, the "bacon and eggs" is Niman Ranch Chipotle Bacon and Scrambled Duck Egg with Black Truffle. The thick triangles of bacon are cured with chipotle and finished in a wood-grill oven, then glazed with molasses and black pepper. The bacon is served with creamy scrambled duck egg with truffle butter on brioche.
Rathbun says the “Bacon and Eggs” is one of his "home boy" dishes: he likes "turning something that people might find common into something uncommon."
Given the eclecticism of the Abacus menu, I ask, is there one cuisine or another that most of his customers markedly prefer? Not really, the chef says: people want to be surprised at Abacus, and they're willing to try dishes well-executed. That's certainly a practice I can now endorse.
When I later look at the menu, I suspect that left to my own devices I might have ordered the Crispy Nova Scotia Halibut with Artichoke-Mozzarella CousCous or the Grilled Jumbo Prawns. And I may indeed have one of those on my next visit to Abacus. At the moment, however, I'm delighted the chef has introduced me to his uncommon takes on a couple of traditional dishes.
© Marshal Zeringue