When Eben Klemm and Ken Jackson began plotting opening a restaurant together a few years back, they originally planned to bring Cajun fare to New York City, but they quickly realized they’d have to retool: “We both felt that real Cajun cooking is hard to do in the north,” says Klemm, a beverage consultant whose worked on drinks lists at spots like Pearl & Ash. But through their research, they learned about the Acadian people, who are behind Cajun cooking: these people moved to Canada from France before making their way down through the United States via Maine, eventually ending up in Louisiana. And the cuisine they left in their wake, thought Jackson and Klemm, was something that could be explored here.
“We found that it would be interesting to go beyond Louisiana Acadians to Canadian Acadians, who were also French immigrants,” says Jackson, who moved to NYC from New Orleans, where he was a founding partner of restaurant Herbsaint. “So we started looking at timelines from France to Louisiana to find things that we could present and elevate, because a lot of it is peasant food, and very rustic.”
“As we did the research,” Klemm adds, “we became very fascinated with the origins of this food. We have small farm upstate, and this allows us to do a lot more seasonality, and presents interesting things to talk about because we’re looking at this whole cultural migration.”
That set the stage for King Bee (424 East 9th Street, 646-755-8088), which the partners are opening in the East Village.
How does Acadian food differ from Cajun food? “There are more vegetables on the plate,” says Klemm. “There’s less spice, although we certainly we have some really traditional Cajun dishes where you see that pure concentration of flavors. This is a little more maritime. And you get grains and game.”
The partners brought on chef Jeremie Tomczak, who cooked under Marcus Samuelsson at Aquavit and Red Rooster, and the trio took research trips to St. John’s in Newfoundland and rural Louisiana. In the former, says Tomczak, they were exposed to dishes like cod’s tongue, which is fried and served like fish and chips. In Louisiana, Tomczak says he had cracklings that were unlike any he’d had before. He brought both dishes back to the restaurant, putting them on the menu alongside duck fricot — a twist on a traditional chicken and dumpling soup — and poutine râpée, which Tomczak says is a potato dumpling filled with lamb. The chef is also turning out crepe-like buckwheat ployes topped with maple cream and trout roe, and he’s doing a vegetarian gumbo, too. “It’s honest food,” says Tomczak. “It has good flavors, and the simplicity is a highlight.”
Klemm’s parents donated four acres of farmland to the restaurant, and the team is currently experimenting with supplying some ingredients for itself. It’s looking local for other ingredients, including its wild game and seafood.
King Bee has a beer and wine license, so cocktails on Klemm’s list are low-alcohol. “I tried to focus on preservation and old techniques,” he says, and he cites a clarified milk punch, plum shrub, lillets, vermouth, and aromatized and fortified wines as examples. He’s also put together a 90-deep list of reds and whites sourced mainly from the U.S. and France with entrants from Germany, Austria, Canada, and Switzerland. And the beer list skews German and Louisianan — ” I believe in beverages that taste like they say they’re going to taste,” he says. “That’s what I’m looking for in the beers.”
The partners have tried to price King Bee moderately, because they’d like it to become a neighborhood restaurant as well as a destination. “Ken and I had been looking for a space for three years, and he knew the people on this lease,” Klemm says. “It’s on a great, quiet block, and it’s great to go to the Tompkins Square Greenmarket on Sundays and stock up on things for experimentation. Also, according to my mom, I was conceived 100 yards away from here. So there are a lot of reasons to be here.”
They’ve kept the copper bar that was the centerpiece of Exchange Alley, the former tenant, and Klemm’s father built copper-topped tables for the front dining room. The partners brought in a lot of reclaimed wood from Amish country for the finishes, and they commissioned Steve Keene, an artist who did the album covers for band Pavement, to do a mural on one wall. King Bee is named for an old Slim Harpo song called “I’m a King Bee,” a swamp rock tune that Klemm says represents a similar melding of cultures that this restaurant is attempting to present.
King Bee opens tomorrow for dinner.