A restaurant can't get by on looks alone.
Thu Sep 25 2008
Photograph: Roxana Marroquin
Time Out Ratings<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5
The East Village is many things: hipster paradise, punk birthplace, NYU stomping ground. One thing it most certainly is not: icon of bourgeois style. Which is why Apiary, the New York spin-off of a global chain of preciously constructed restaurants by luxury furniture maker Ligne Roset, stands out the way an accountant might while pounding beers at 7B.
Chef Neil Manacle, a Bobby Flay lieutenant for 16 years at Mesa Grill, chose this as his first solo venture, and he has seemingly bought into Apiary’s style-first genesis. His food merges American and Mediterranean cuisines, but he impresses primarily with his plating. Matching the glossy decor—the opposite of the bomb-throwers at AvroKo, Ligne Roset favors soft oversized chairs in various red and purple hues and cutout Lucite sconces that project chandelier shadows onto white walls—Manacle’s eats are the tableside version of Zoolander. His food emerges from the kitchen glistening like lacquer, the unfailingly rich colors accented by a visually vibrant side or sauce, the latter applied by squirt bottle gone amok. Far less predictable is how this really, really, really good-looking food tastes: Manacle offers one of the most wildly inconsistent meals I’ve ever had. Most menus have both hits and misses in each course, but rarely has such uniform clumsiness with starters been followed by entrées so self-assured.
Arriving below a curvy pile of pink summer slaw, my first appetizer, a crab cake with a pretty seared top, had deadly textural issues. The crab was pulverized into a mushy goo, not unlike creamed spinach. If that sounds unpleasant, that’s because it was. To this vaguely briny compound, Manacle added a tart lime curd that desperately clashed with the fishy cutlet. Elsewhere, the calamari fried in rice flour bore a plastic consistency—imagine chewing a Shrinky Dink. The piled-high squid obscured the red-pepper tapenade, an acrid concoction laced with capers and black olives, until the calamari was all but gone. I would have been annoyed at having missed out if the sauce hadn’t been so ill-suited for its mate. And while a starter of tomato crostini had individually stellar ingredients—tiny green and red heirloom tomatoes, baby arugula, moist feta—it may as well have been a panzanella salad, as it collapsed into a pile of shattered pieces when I tried to eat it.
The experience was further undercut by the din. Ligne Roset might know furniture, but they’re amateurs when it comes to acoustics. Bustle can be a good thing, but Apiary’s dining room somehow broadcast conversations directly into my table—on one night, I was dialed simultaneously into two groups of cacklers, their laughs projecting toward me as if by megaphone.
Then, just as I was tempted to walk on the meal, Manacle’s entrées seduced me back. I’ve eaten my way across Morocco twice, and his chicken—allspice and, especially, cumin, infusing a tender quarter bird—glistening as though it had emerged from a kiln, was the best dish of the evening. A bowl of apricot-dotted couscous deliciously soaked up the aromatic juices. Lamb showcased a similar flair for Middle Eastern seasonings, the juicy chops rubbed in fennel, mustard seed and cumin, complemented by a side dish of fried hummus (think creamy chickpea fries), plus stewed dates and currants. The lone fish entrée wasn’t showed up by its meaty counterparts. Pan-seared halibut sported an enviable crust, complemented by a fresh eggplant salad with crunchy bits of Vidalia onion and kicky cayenne pepper.
Desserts returned to the ambitious yet ultimately pedestrian. A dense goat-cheese cake with a swipe of blueberry was tasty but lacked refinement, though it was a better choice than a chocolate cashew brownie tart, essentially a dry cake poured into a generic crust—no better than a bake-sale concoction.
I like the beverage program here—two dozen microbrews, original sangrias (including a novel blend of kiwi, lychee and strawberry), artisanal honeys for your tea (appropriate given the bee-related name) and an American-heavy wine list that takes chances.
That I first read about Apiary in a fashion daily, WWD, helps explain why looks seem to matter as much as food to the restaurant’s mission. Manacle has clearly shown potential. But until he delivers more culinary hits, Apiary will remain little more than a fashion statement.