September 8, 2008 | BITE: My Journal

Apiary: Not Quite the Bee’s Knees YetDesigner iron lighting like irradiated tulips catch the eye. Photo: Steven Richter
Designer iron lighting like irradiated tulips catch the eye. Photo: Steven Richter

       Like a privileged first child in an ambitious family with excellent connections, Apiary has a top of the line nursery – slick modern design by partner Ligne Rosset, starring whimsical trompe l’oeil sconces and the company’s own sleekly squared side chairs upholstered in deep jewel colors – garnet, amethyst, graphite, cat’s eye, or shall I say, beet, eggplant, braised veal and chocolate. Managing partner Jenny Moon left Korea at 15 for this destiny – an American education, a degree in finance from Cornell’s hotel and restaurant school, then risk arbitrage on Wall Street, and finally, following her real passion to Restaurant Daniel’s skybox as Boulud’s executive assistant, finally, a stop at Eighty One, even while hatching Apiary.

Smart design and serious chairs by Ligne Roset under low ceilings. Photo: Steven Richter

      With Moon as managing partner, Neil Manacle, Bobby Flay’s sidekick of sixteen years, at the stove and Cellar consultant Nick Mautone lining up the bottles (heavy duty alternative action in New York state labels and micro brews), Apiary brings remarkably good bones to the creeping gentrification of Third Avenue below 10th Street.

Giant prawns and scallops show chef Manacle at his strongest. Photo: Steven Richter

      Should you be a local newbie freeholder just strolling by, the illuminated metal twists in the front window - a designer light fixture suggesting radioactive tulips – would surely stop you.  But tonight, on my first tasting with friends, I see fork-tongued foodie first nighters ganged up at the bare black tables have left few spots free for curious walkins. Chatter gets magnified under the low ceiling.  It will be noisy when the nomadic screamers move in but tonight, we can lean in and hear at least half of what we're saying.

Chef Neil Manacle racked up 16 years with Bobby Flay. Photo: Steven Richter

      Lining up slices of sensational heirloom tomatoes on a thick toasted crostini with feta and arugula doesn’t make for easy bites of crostini but all the parts are delicious, as is the saltiness of Serrano ham played against the sweetness of fresh roasted peaches with shaved goat cheese in a mustardy sherry vinaigrette. But calamari are lost in too thick breading. Summer slaw piled on crab cake distracts from the simplicity of perfect crab. Agreed, the cake looks good, like Sarah the Warrior, with its cabbagey updo. Steamed mussels with sausage in a citrus broth is classic. And there is an elegant purity in giant prawns and sea scallops with cannelloni beans in a tangy shellfish broth. I’m discounting the failure to send out sauce spoons to a serving crew still in boot camp.  While we wait for silverware I can scoop up a bit of these citric pools with mussel shells. 

Mussels in a vibrant broth deserve a soup spoon.  Photo: Steven Richter

      I can’t say that quite juicy smoked paprika dusted pork tenderloin or the chimichurri marinated hanger steak are flawed.  It’s just that we had sensationally feisty hanger steak the night before at Morandi and the memory makes this version seem quite ordinary.  Of course, I’m not surprised that a chef come of age in Flay’s aura overdoes on sweetness. And after all, this is Apiary. Personally, I hate honey as well as fruit vinegars in my vinaigrette. And I’m not going to be happy with sweet’n’sour fruit sauce tainting my spice crusted lamb. A side of spicy eggplant comes cold.  That’s a surprise.

      Blueberry compote turns out to be sticky purple streaks alongside goat cheesecake with lavender honey (yes, I hate lavender too). But the chocolate cashew tart with cashew ice cream is a hit and the vanilla ice cream on the peach crisp is just perfect.  Not sweet at all.

      Now how did that happen?

      Though I’m betting East Villagers will be thrown by prices that would seem blissful in midtown, I’m not going to judge a chef with these credentials on just one dinner. It’s never easy to leave home and a protected adolesence.  I want to believe that the man who Flay thinks is good enough to run his kitchens will grow into his own.

60 Third Avenue between 9th and 10th Streets. 212 254 0888