Apiary is the Bee's Knees
Apiary joins the crowd of high-end, seasonal New American restaurants that have been breeding like bunnies this decade. The sleekly designed newcomer offers a familiar blend of fine and casual dining—fairly high prices, farmers'-market-driven food, no tablecloths, and dark wood.
But after a few visits, it becomes clear that Apiary's chef isn't interested in pandering to trends. Instead of the requisite pork belly, we get pork tenderloin—that ultra-lean, most unlovable part of the pig. Chef Neil Manacle brines it overnight in a mixture of smoked Spanish paprika, black pepper, bay leaves, and brown sugar, rendering the meat rosy and saturated with flavor. Instead of more predictable roast-chicken preparations, Manacle's is coated with Moroccan spices and served with perfect, minted couscous. Lamb chops are sided with an uncommon disk of fried hummus.
And it's no small trick to put together a neighborhood restaurant that works harmoniously on all levels—the servers, the host, the bar, the menu, the food—as most spots trip over at least one of these fundamentals. And as long as it's not the food, I get over it, but it's a pleasure to find a place that manages the intricate choreography in a relatively casual setting.
After a long day, I stagger into Apiary with my clunky gym bag under one arm and my everyday bag under the other. (Most of the time, I look like I have absolutely no business going to the restaurants I frequent.) The host doesn't bat an eyelash and suggests I sit at the bar until my reservation time. From a selection of about 30 wines by the glass, I choose a Santa Barbara white blend. My friend arrives and also orders a glass. When our table is ready (right on time), before I can even hop down off the stool, the server has our two glasses balanced on a smart silver tray and one of my bags in his hand. This server (who happens to be adorable) goes on to distinguish himself by managing to recommend dishes and wines without sounding like either a used-car salesman or an academic.
Each time we visited, we never had a plate removed before everyone was finished. Also, we were never upsold, never given long lectures on the menu, and never felt pressured to be chatty with the server. And each course followed the previous one with perfect timing. Maybe this makes me sound easily impressed, but it's hard to find such spot-on service in a restaurant that's not a formal temple of gastronomy.
The bar and dining room were designed and furnished by Ligne Roset, a French furniture-design firm. It turns out that two of Apiary's partners own Ligne Roset shops in Long Island and New Jersey. So, essentially, everything in the restaurant is for sale at those showrooms. I'd be annoyed by this convenient "synergy" if it were made explicit, but it's not; you have to ask to find out.
Meanwhile, the room is a functional stunner. The red-and-chocolate-brown chairs are roomy, comfortably padded, and have little silver handles in the back to make them easy to pull out and push in. There are plenty of interesting design elements to look at if you're into that; if not, it all recedes into a background glow.
Apiary's menu is divided simply into appetizers and main courses—and is seasonal, as you would expect. Recently, appetizers focused on late-summer produce—like heirloom tomatoes and peaches—and seafood. Most of the main courses are straightforward, balanced plates of protein, vegetables, and starch (your mom would approve). Those simple ingredients are often zipped with the Spanish or North African touches that Manacle is fond of deploying.
A steamed-mussel appetizer is cooked so gently that the bivalves are at a wonderfully gushy, almost pudding-like consistency. They sit in a shallow bowl with their cooking liquid at the bottom—white wine, garlic, parsley—and are augmented with thin slices of fuet sausage, a dry-cured Spanish charcuterie. The bowl provided for shells is whisked away just before it becomes full and is swiftly replaced by an empty one.
The fried-calamari appetizer gets an airy rice-flour coating, which sizzles up crisp and light. Halibut crudo looks dainty but turns out to be as potent as ceviche, the mild white fish jolted with grassy serrano chilies, citrus juices, and slices of Persian cucumbers. Heirloom tomatoes—the darlings of the greenmarket right now—are sliced onto crostini along with salty feta and bitter arugula, and puréed into a chilled golden-tomato soup.
Main dishes are generously portioned, although they should be, since they aren't cheap. In a delicious rabbit dish, a luscious, braised leg is served with the leaner, serrano-ham-wrapped loin. The bunny bits sit atop an earthy mixture of red-wine reduction, wild mushrooms, and brown-butter-crisped spaetzle. That's Manacle's cooking at its best: unfussy and completely pleasurable.
Spice-crusted lamb chops are glazed with a syrupy sweet-and-sour sauce scattered with currants and apricots, and the smoked-paprika pork tenderloin is sided with a delicious mustard-fig jam. Both walk that sweet-savory line that's refreshingly old-fashioned—like lamb and mint jelly, updated.
Sides come with the main dishes and can also be ordered separately (which gives your vegetarian friends at least a few options). There's spiced eggplant—stewed down to silk, with the slightest bitter edge—and fluffy couscous studded with fresh mint and dried apricots. But sometimes, simple is as simple does: Green vegetables like haricots verts and sugar snap peas are barely cooked and arrive fashionably crisp-tender. They're practically crudités—and would taste better cooked longer.
Appropriately enough, given the restaurant's bee-centric name, Apiary's dessert menu showcases honeys of impressive pedigree. The best is the goat cheesecake, a disk of gamey, sweet curds drizzled with lavender honey. The cheese plate comes with a selection of three honeys—on a recent visit: bamboo, summer flower, and raspberry—bought from Andrew's Local Honey and Tremblay Apiaries, both of which sell at the Union Square Greenmarket.
Manacle actually spent four years as a New York City bus driver before decamping to culinary school and then cooking under Bobby Flay. "I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel," he told me. "This is stuff that I like to eat, and if you came to dinner at my house, chances are I'd serve you one of the items on the menu."
Good as it is, dinner at Manacle's house doesn't come cheap. A glass of wine, an appetizer, a main dish, and a shared dessert, with tax and tip, rings up to between $70 and $80. When places like Hundred Acres and Brooklyn's James are doing similar food at a lower price point, it's hard not to conclude that Apiary is overpriced.
Still, Apiary offers simple courtesies and straightforward, pleasurable flavors, both of which should be more common than they are.
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