It’s dinnertime in South Jersey, and a pair of 40-somethings split a bottle of chardonnay as their well-behaved nine-year-old sips a glass of milk. Bites of fried chicken and ravioli are shared, along with anecdotes from the school and work days. Meanwhile, four silver-haired music professors gab about Philadelphia Orchestra politics in between morsels of foie gras and lobster presented by the chef himself. These radically different meals are happening at adjacent tables at the recently reopened and reimagined Alphabet Soup Cafe in Audubon, New Jersey, on the very same Tuesday evening. All these dishes are the handiwork of chef Jayson Grossberg, who is making another grab for success in this sunny and serene dining room.
It’s that second meal — a creative $65 chef’s tasting menu of five to 10-plus courses — that fans of Grossberg’s cooking have come to know through his catering biz and Alphabet Soup’s original incarnation, which lasted just 16 months, from May 2006 to August 2007. Though his menu won raves (the BYOB was even feted in the New York Times), business faltered. Weeknights, says the chef, were dead. South Jersey just didn’t have a big appetite for dishes like Grossberg’s $32 venison loin. In part because of the Times’s glowing review, Alphabet Soup became known as the expensive special-occasion restaurant you visit once a year. That reputation can sustain a restaurant in the middle of a huge city, but in unassuming Audubon, it spelled doom.
For more than a year, Grossberg focused on his catering while Alphabet Soup’s cozy dining room, with its charming glass lanterns, original artwork, and the quirky lettered chairs he’d hand — selected for his dream restaurant, sat empty. During the hiatus, Grossberg took some business classes, and one axiom hit him particularly hard: Give the people what they want. He realized that was where Alphabet Soup version 1.0 had gone wrong. When he took a long, hard look at his would-be core diners (residents of Audubon, Collingswood and Haddonfield), it was obvious he’d need to simplify his food without compromising quality, cut prices, and make the place family-friendly. Grossberg reopened in February, touting entrées priced under $20 and a kid’s menu. Alphabet Soup 2.0 was born.
The new menu is stacked with comforting, crowd-pleasing classics. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more satisfying plate of fried chicken, brined overnight, marinated in buttermilk, and cooked to golden perfection. The entrée costs just $17 for three pieces of free-range chicken, fresh coleslaw and mashed potatoes. The dish is also an example of the money-saving strategies Grossberg has put in place to keep menu prices low: Those chicken parts (drumsticks, wings and thighs) are essentially leftovers from his roast chicken breast entrée.
Soup-making methods show similar thrift. The mushroom soup — a velvety bowl of woodsy royal trumpets brightened with green apple — is based on mushroom stems, which don’t work in the several recipes where the exotic royal trumpet caps are called for. The corn soup, a sunny bowl of summertime studded with meaty bits of bacon, gets its depth from a stock made from the stripped corncobs. Why throw them away, reasons Grossberg, when there’s so much flavor there?
Waste may be minimized, and economy may rule, but the dishes aren’t parsimonious. In fact, most deliver a satisfying hit of luxury. A wild mushroom risotto appetizer showcases those meaty mushroom caps and is enriched with a dose of buttery brie cheese. The duck confit salad comes with a whole duck leg, its rich meat falling from the bone beneath a crackling brown skin. The perfectly seared scallops are touched with truffle and set atop a smooth carrot puree whose flavor is as vibrant as its hue. A juicy New York strip is as flavorful as steaks that are twice its price. Desserts (some from Bryn Mawr’s Bakery House) include a coconut cake so fantastic, I devoured the entire mammoth slice.
It’s this careful balance between cost and quality, cliché and creativity, that makes the new Alphabet Soup as appealing as it is approachable. Those old regulars are back with their wine clubs for the tasting menu, but many newcomers have been lured by the promise of a great Kobe burger, an unfussy fresh fillet of cod, or a simple barbecued pork chop. With these well-executed classics at prices this low, and the option of a tasting menu, Grossberg has cracked the code. He’s giving both foodies and the neighbors exactly what they want, all under one roof.