When word got out two months ago that Hector Santiago was Abattoir's new executive chef, the reaction among fans was a mix of surprise and excitement. No one expected that owners Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison would be so bold as to bring in a chef of Santiago's renown and strong personal style (they also run Bacchanalia, Quinones, Floataway Café, and Star Provisions, and are known for promoting from within their chef ranks). Hopes for the resurrection of Pura Vida, Santiago's shuttered Latin American tapas restaurant, seemed dashed. The question on everyone's mind was the extent to which Abattoir, now four years old, might mesh with Santiago's Latin American flair.
Santiago famously quipped on "Top Chef" that he cooks "with heart and balls," and it's easy to line that up with a restaurant whose name means slaughterhouse.
"Annie [Quatrano] called me, and I was like, 'Wow.' The approach here really fits with what I've been doing at Pura Vida and what I like to eat," Santiago says. "We've still got work to do to make sure Abattoir has a strong identity, but we know it will be a good mix of what was here that was successful and new things that I can bring, too."
Two months in, many of the things that capture the core of the Abattoir experience are still strongly felt — the warm and rustic barn-chic dining room is still the same, the hot-out-of-the-oven baguette with soft butter still comes with a shattering crunch, and the service is still casual yet attentive. The menu still covers a wide swath of local produce, house-made charcuterie, small plates meant for sharing, and a handful of mostly meat-y entrées.
Santiago describes Abattoir's updated theme as an "American regional chophouse" with some Latin American flavors sprinkled in. The changes become more evident as you scan the ingredients on what is still a rapidly evolving menu. A supple and citrusy halibut ceviche gets a spicy pop from serrano chile "pearls." Santiago's much-loved empanadas show up here as "grass-fed beef pies." The flaky meat pockets — accented with sweet raisins and cilantro inside — are as tasty here as they were at Pura Vida. A starter of smoky grilled octopus is dusted in a fragrant chorizo spice rub. The 12-ounce New York strip steak comes spread with a thick and garlicky chimichurri stained crimson with smoked paprika.
More of Santiago's heart and balls show up on a secret butcher's menu — sometimes literally. Dishes on this by-request-only menu feature ingredients like chicken hearts, gizzards, blood sausage, and pig maws. Why all the secrecy?
"We don't want to scare people away, but I want to be able to please those we know will enjoy it," Santiago says.
The staff is clearly excited when diners show interest in the hidden treats. Santiago's famous blood sausage is surprisingly soft and soothing, without a hint of metallic harshness. My favorite dish among the two-dozen I've tried over the past few weeks was an impossibly tender lamb's tongue with creamy chunks of avocado and crisp purslane in a thin, but heady, broth.
Santiago is also pushing to make Abattoir more of an affordable dining destination. Secret menu items tend to be less than $10 and those decadent fried pies are just $7 for a plate of four. The entrées gravitate toward the low-$20s and top out at $36 for the New York strip. "You won't likely see a giant, expensive rib-eye, but rather cuts that are more sensible, like a rib chop or just the eye, which is a beautiful cut," he says.
You'll be hard-pressed to find a more flavorful, well-marbled, expertly charred but red in the middle piece of meat than Abattoir's bone-in rib chop. Served simply with lime and salt and a few grilled padrón peppers on top, the chop is $30 for a 16-ounce cut — a steal compared to other steakhouses in town. Wines by the bottle remain refreshingly well-priced, too. There's a great globe-hopping diversity in the $20-$35 range, and the servers are well-versed in helping to choose a bottle.
One quirk of the printed menu is that the descriptions are often woefully lacking in detail. I had no idea that sausage would be a main component in my Jamison Farm lamb. Or that arugula and bleu cheese were part of the bresaola with figs. And what the heck is a Wai Meli cocktail? The cocktail list has no descriptions at all. (Turns out the Wai Meli is a syrupy, Fig Newton-like concoction — delicious but awfully dessert-y.)
After the shock of having Santiago at the helm at Abattoir subsides, what's left is a sense of excitement. The new chef's Latin American leanings are clearly present, but never overpowering. And, with this new emerging identity, Abattoir is once again worthy of being one of the most buzzed-about restaurants in town. Best of all, Santiago has a prominent stage to show off his heart and, ahem, his balls.
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