If you’ll forgive the horrible pun, restaurants in New York hardly come buzzier than Lucky Bee, a festive, cramped “pan-Asian” joint that first cast its hot-pink neon glow onto Broome Street in late January. Staff hurried around the imposing oval hawker’s station in the middle of the space to serve a lively, packed house — no small feat considering owners and spouses Rupert Noffs and chef Matty Bennett spent their first three months in business cooking without any gas due to bureaucratic delays.
The couple made do, using induction burners to steam pork dumplings doused in Chinese black vinegar and stew cinnamon-y lamb shoulder curry with pineapple vinegar. Now that the gas is on, diners — whether enticed by Noffs’s in-your-face aesthetic (the bathroom is Grace Jones–themed) or Bennett’s plucky locavore street food — have decided Lucky Bee is worth the wait. The result is that when the place is slammed, you feel the commotion of the hive: Checks linger unchecked a bit too long, and reservations might even be misplaced. But early birds are rewarded with gracious service — and first crack at the octopus, its tentacles grilled and laid over a vivid array of summer corn, roast pork belly, and a mess of herbs.
The rest of Lucky Bee’s menu is similarly quirky and confident. Sichuan salt-and-pepper chicken wings are missing their familiar numbing tingle but, with their super-crunchy skin, are seemingly no worse for it. Grassy and slightly bitter betel leaves (a mild stimulant) are a refreshing contrast to blue crab flavored with chile paste, chopped peanuts, kaffir lime leaf, and cilantro.
Formally trained in Australia, Bennett took an interest in Southeast Asian cuisines while cooking at Longrain, a stalwart nouveau-Thai restaurant in Sydney. His menu is informed by the greenmarket and largely devoted to shareable plates like bao buns stuffed with crisp pork hock and mint-flecked duck larb. At the peak of summer, I’ll be thinking of his salads, which combine dill pickles and coconut milk with smashed cucumbers and liven papaya up with fresh chile peppers and dried shrimp.
Curries dominate the entrées. Bennett makes them in-house, and they’re especially intense and complex. A green version brims with vegetables (including squat, bulbous Thai eggplant), while heady red peanut and milder coconut options go nicely with beef. A tart orange curry — served up with arctic char or salmon and a betel leaf chiffonade — had me practically reeling one night. If you prefer your seafood fried, Bennett does justice to whole (sadly headless) snapper and catfish, dusting them in just enough tapioca flour that they shatter easily with a tap.
The sole dessert, meanwhile, is so good you’ll forgive the lack of options. Simple but not dumbed down, the coconut tapioca pudding has chunks of honeycomb and banana toffee buried under a mountain of charred marshmallows.
Drinks are nearly as much of a draw. One vodka-based winner pulls together honeydew juice, matcha tea, and chai honey. (A fat line of bee pollen gets sprinkled across the top, a nod to the fact that a dollar of this $15 “karma cocktail,” made with local honey instead of simple syrup, will be donated to the NYC Beekeepers Association.) There’s also no arguing with a Last Word variant that swaps out Italian maraschino for a bitter, citrusy Aperol, and the usual gin for a smoky mezcal, nor with the pleasure of nursing it while sitting under the hanging plants festooned across the ceiling — no matter how long you’ve waited to take your first sip.
The Lucky Bee
252 Broome Street, 844-364-4286
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 21, 2016