A love of Southeast Asia informs the Lower East Side’s rollicking Lucky Bee (252 Broome Street, Manhattan, 844-364-4286), which Rupert Noffs and chef Matty Bennett opened to instant buzz at the beginning of the year despite the lack of a completely functional kitchen. The pair first met while working on a cruise ship in 2003: Noffs sang and danced nightly, while Bennett provided the soundtrack and stage effects as his DJ. “It was like Groundhog Day and Big Brother at sea,” Noffs confides. “Matty and I kept each other sane.” Bennett, a culinary-school-trained British expat, joined Noffs at home in Australia before they set their sights on New York.
With Lucky Bee, the industrious spouses and first-time restaurateurs persevered through months of bureaucratic delays, forced to forgo using their new kitchen appliances until they could get their gas turned on. They made do serving green-papaya salads (unique in their use of tamarind, shrimp floss, and spindly snake beans) and steaming pork dumplings cooked on induction burners. “Opening a restaurant in New York City has definitely been the most challenging thing we’ve ever done together,” claims Noffs. “When people say you need a sense of humor, it’s so true.” But even with a disadvantaged kitchen, Lucky Bee drew crowds that never waned. They even found a fan in Barbra Streisand, through her frequent co-director Richard Jay-Alexander, who procured Bennett’s twice-cooked pork hock bao buns — layered with cucumber and slathered in hoisin-chile relish — for the chanteuse to snack on while she was in town for the Tony Awards.
In the spring, once they were fully up and running, Noffs and Bennett expanded their menu to include dishes like cashew-praline-crusted whole shrimp and peppery chicken wings, putting their newly available equipment to good use. Bold shareable curries, which Bennett grinds with a mortar and pestle by hand, dominate the greenmarket-driven, predominantly Thai menu. He cooks grass-fed beef to fork-tenderness in a slurry of peanuts, coconut milk, and red chiles, and sits betel-leaf-topped arctic char in a pool of electrifyingly sour orange curry. Noffs, who designed the jam-packed retro space — a kaleidoscope of neon pink, zebra stripes, and hanging plants — plays affable host. His flair for the dramatic, which matches his husband’s zeal in the kitchen, is evident in the restaurant’s Grace Jones–themed bathroom. It might just be the fiercest loo in town.
Over the summer, the duo ran a North Fork pop-up at the Gallery Hotel in Greenport — a precursor to a possible brick-and-mortar Long Island expansion. Back home, some nights the wait for a table can stretch past two hours. So a bar, preferably near the Broome Street flagship, will come next. “It’s a no-brainer to have a spot where guests can have a drink first,” Noffs tells the Voice. Until then, you can sit at the oval hawker’s station in the middle of the room and enjoy the Lucky Bee’s virtuous “karma cocktails”: drinks made with local honey, whose purchase supports the NYC Beekeepers Association.