One thing I’ve always loved about New York – a city I predominantly travel to solo, in order to be as selfish as possible and do exactly what I want for five days straight – is its glut of restaurants with counters. Here, as a solo traveller, you can sit up at a gleaming bar without feeling at all conspicuous, banter with the bar staff or watch chefs sizzle and chop in their open kitchens. I say New York’s counters – or “bar seating” in local restaurant parlance – are superior to its tables, however comfy, discreet or spacious they may be.
But I’m not usually tucking into delicate, artsy platters of fine dining creations, as I was at l’Abeille – usually the bar is best suited to unwieldy, sauce-dripping tacos or cocktails and tapas. I’d booked in for a special treat on a landmark trip to New York, my first following the pandemic and nearly two years of being unable to visit. This time I’d chosen to stay Downtown, in Soho, something everyone should do after they’ve been a handful of times and seen the Statue of Liberty, Empire State et al. My favourite of these gradually narrowing downtown ’hoods is Tribeca, home of the city’s film festival, Robert De Niro’s excellent hotel and celeb pads owned by everyone from Harry Styles to The Weeknd.
Walking past this elegant corner-restaurant’s lowercase signage and into its flatteringly lit dining room, a slick mix of upmarket looks and relaxed vibe was immediately evident. Velvety booths and midcentury chairs in steel blue and peridot green? Posh. Reasonably raucous chatter of staff and patrons? Chilled. Chefs at an open kitchen artfully drizzling and splodging sauces and sorbets? Posh. Young couples lounging at the bar, laughing over a martini? Chilled.
Once we’d enjoyed a cocktail and a look at the intriguing menu, there was nothing to do but sit back while a parade of dainty bites were served on increasingly sculptural ceramics. There are trad French-luxe flavours to go with the name (champagne, caviar, lavender), but a love of seafood, hints of miso and seaweed and a molecular perfectionism to the presentation that channel Japan – that’s Osaka-born chef Mitsunobu Nagae’s heritage coming through. The name of the venue, of course, means “the bee” – a cutesy allusion to the chef’s shortened name, Mitsu, which means “honey” in Japanese.
In our comfy seats at the bar, we tuck into a scoop of foie gras crème brulée topped with a sweet onion sorbet – this joint is fond of a sorbet, as we’ll soon learn. Scooping it out of a delicate ceramic nest like a sea urchin’s shell is all part of the fun. Whatever your ethical views on the goose liver speciality, it’s undeniably delicious – a sweet and salty triumph we savour longer than its petite portion suggests. Next up is scallop carpaccio with a generous dollop of caviar, and a refreshing citrus-cream sauce that whisks us right out of the sultry Manhattan-in-summer heat and cools us down to our veins.
We then dance through juicy nuggets of lobster with a pea purée and tender morel mushrooms; a slighly charred but tender trout with white asparagus and a champagne sauce and wagyu beef in a umami-packed jus and pommes purée with just a whisper of horseradish. Deserts are light and clean-tasting – a palate-cleanser of strawberries, lychee, shiso and rose vanishes in a bite, while a honey ice cream and white chocolate marshmallow comes daubed with citrus sauces for alternate hits of mellow sweetness and zest.
L’Abeille’s tasting menu doesn’t come cheap – it’s $185 (£150) for an eight-course extravaganza, with an added $115 (£94) for wine pairings with each. But the experience is flawless, from flavour pairings to photogenic execution. You can also go a la carte, with dishes priced from $22 to $85 (£18-69). The concept – which whips through delicate sugar crisps, fluffy foams and carefully-sculpted stacks of ingredients – might be a little fussy for some, in this city of Bible-thick steaks and vats of pasta. But for those who love discovering new flavour pairings and creative cooking techniques, the love that goes into each layer of texture and visual flourish will blow you away.
The restaurant’s setting, its attentive yet laid-back staff and the steam and bubble of the open kitchen all lay the stage for a brilliant special occasion dinner. It’s the sort of place where you’ll want to order a glass of champagne to start, and maybe linger for an expert martini – but you won’t feel upsold to or out of place for not being a fine-dining regular. This may not be New York’s traditional territory, but it’s a prime example of its sophistication as a global chef-magnet – in a stylish neighbourhood a world away from Midtown chaos.
412 Greenwich St, New York, NY 10013 | labeille.nyc | +1 212 542 3898