What’s That Buzz?

hodgson What’s That Buzz?I remember an old ditty from my childhood:

I eat my peas with honey

I’ve done it all my life

It makes the peas taste funny

But it keeps them on the knife

There’s plenty of time to recall your own ditties at the ostensibly honey-themed Apiary, in the East Village, while waiting for your drinks. One night we sat empty-handed for nearly half an hour, even though the place was gearing up for dinner and there were plenty of waiters and waitresses milling around—deftly managing not to catch our eye. Once our server established herself, she was helpful and nice. But another night, service was distracted. Apiary could do with a strong presence in the dining room, a host or hostess on patrol.

Noise is an issue, too. Despite the restaurant’s name, the sound level here does not exactly bring to mind Tennyson’s “murmuring of innumerable bees.” It’s more aviary, in fact, the din punctuated by the occasional high-pitched screech of some exotic jungle bird in impossibly high heels. Maybe Ligne Roset—the French company that designed and furnished the restaurant—could come up with a carpet.

 

GIVE APIARY POINTS  for bravery, though, planted as it is on Third Avenue just below 14th Street—a stretch better known for its profusion of funky sports bars and pubs catering to hipsters and N.Y.U. students. The local diners are more accustomed to getting their steak with a bottle of A1, not romesco aioli and chimichurri.

The restaurant’s front window is decorated with two silvery-blue cobra-shaped poles topped with tiny bright pinpoints. They look like creatures from outer space. They are, in fact, reading lamps, a curious window display for a restaurant—especially one with a name that suggests bees and honey. (Ligne Roset also provided the lamps.)

Lamp shades decorated with cut-outs of ancestral chandeliers hang from the low ceiling, and cut-out Lucite sconces project enormous shadows onto the plain white walls. The long, narrow room has a sleek, bare-bones look: polished ebony wood tables and geometric armchairs upholstered in soothing shades of wine red, aubergine and chocolate brown.

Apiary sets out to combine neighborhood coziness with style and elegance, and the team behind it is impressive. Chef and partner Neil Manacle cooked for 16 years with Bobby Flay at Mesa Grill, Bolo and Bar Americain. Owner Jenny Moon, who left her native Korea to study in the United States when she was just 15, started out on Wall Street before heading uptown to Daniel as Boulud’s assistant. Later she moved to Tabla and, more recently, worked as maitre d’ at Ed Brown’s new Eighty One. Nick Mautone, a managing partner of Gramercy Tavern, put together the well-rounded wine list, which includes a section of 30 New York State vintages. There are also 30 wines by the glass and 24 microbrews. The restaurant serves house-made sangrias and cocktails, such as a lively concoction made of prosecco with dried apricots and mint.

 

MR..MANACLE’S SELF-DESCRIBED “new American cuisine” heartily embraces the tastes of Spain, Morocco and the Middle East. His cooking isn’t fussy (“no more than four or five seasonal ingredients,” he says), and he goes for bright colors, decorating his gorgeous plates like a painter.

I like the way this chef uses fruits with savory dishes. The brined roast pork loin is a standout, sliced in rosy pieces, its skin burnished a deep mahogany color from a mustard, fig and smoked paprika glaze. It comes with green beans sprinkled with butter-fried bread crumbs and hazelnuts. Beautifully spiced Moroccan chicken is accompanied by light, fluffy couscous laced with dried apricots and mint. Lamb chops crusted with fennel, mustard seed and cumin are matched with a sweet and sour fruit sauce made with currants and apricots, along with a crisp cake of fried hummus.

The first courses are generally excellent. The roast peaches with serrano ham and goat cheese are probably no longer on the menu, alas, but they were so good I hope to see them back next year. A subtly spiced squash soup with curried yogurt replaces summer’s tomato soup, and slivered beets topped with toasted pistachios, goat cheese crème and a sprinkling of microgreens make for a fine fall starter.

The kitchen is less sure-footed when it leaves land. Skip the mediocre halibut crudo, the doughy calamari (although my companion liked them fine, especially with the spicy lemon aioli) and the rubbery, under-seasoned octopus.

And what of those bees? Artisanal honeys are served with the cheese plate, and make their way into several desserts. The goat cheese cake is flavored with honey and comes with a swath of blueberry compote on the plate, but it’s gummy. A pleasant honey ice cream comes with a naked crepe, topped with raw strawberries, and with the peach crisp, which packed more flavor than the pear crisp on the current menu. But the hands-down winner is the creamy chocolate cashew brownie tart in a feathery pastry shell with cashew ice cream. Whenever I get my dessert wine, I’ll tell you what to pair it with.

mhodgson@observer.com