Guests at the restaurant are likely to pick up on the no-stress vibes. ABC Pony has the relaxed feel of a neighborhood spot, even with its slick location in the ground floor of the luxury Novel South Capitol apartment complex. For a laid-back joint, the place has an impressive lineup: The kitchen will be helmed by Paolo Dungca, lately of Bad Saint and Kaliwa, and Chris Yates, formerly of Elle; the prolific restaurateur brothers Ian and Eric Hilton are partners.
Here, the 80s and 90s have returned with a playful splash (as if we needed more evidence than the high-waisted jeans and chunky Doc Martens sported by chic patrons). Shelves are stocked with throwback VHS tapes and memorabilia, and checks are delivered in cassette-tape cases.
And then there are the prices, which don’t require a special occasion to justify. Ten-buck cocktails? Happy Tuesday! Among them, the Miso Milk Punch is an early star: Japanese whiskey, orange juice and a hint of funky miso, all transformed to a caramel-toned, transparent liquid with the science of milk clarification. A yuzu gimlet packs both citrus and heat, thanks to a syrup laced with Japanese chile.
The idea behind the restaurant might seem gimmicky — after all, overly contrived fusion food is practically a punchline anymore. But Bruner-Yang, who was born in Taiwan and raised in the United States, says it’s a continuation of his own evolution as a chef. When he started with H Street NE ramen shop Toki Underground and later with Maketto, he was more of a purist; “Now I’m more interested in what American flavors are going forward,” he says. (There’s also a deep backstory about how the cultural clashes in “Do the Right Thing” influenced the project, but that’s enough for a dissertation.)
On the plate, it turns out that there’s a good bit of common ground between the Asian and Italian cooking that makes for a happier cross-continental marriage than one might expect. A starter of lumpia, the traditional Filipino crispy dough-wrapped cigars, get a trip to Italy with a filling of burrata and Italian sausage. The result resembles a crackling mozzarella stick, a variant on the bar snack made even more complex by a dunk in its accompanying spicy tomato sauce.
Then there are noodles (or are we calling it pasta?): Standouts include fusilli in white Bolognese, a creamy sauce with a sharp tang of Asian sausage made of ground pork, sopressata and prosciutto, Bruner-Yang says, and prepared using a Chinese water-boil method. Spaghetti in XO sauce, a staple of Cantonese dishes (Bruner-Yang’s features more prosciutto and sopressata trimmings, plus dried shrimp and scallops) is an umami bomb. Some dishes skip the concept entirely. There’s not much Asian about a striking Caesar salad that tosses sheets of celery and fennel with apple and hazelnut — and no need to force it onto the dish.
Bruner-Yang says he hopes to soon offer some kind of breakfast service, though now, the kitchen’s morning operations are devoted to turning out the day’s pasta. And he’d like to offer a rotating “blue plate” special to add some variation to the relatively small, 12-item menu for regulars.
But like the prevailing mood at ABC Pony, there’s no pressure — all in good time.
2 I St. SE. 202-913-8155. abcpony.com. Entrees, $16 to $19.
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