60 Third Avenue, New York NY; (b/n 10th and 11th Streets; map); 212-254-0888
Service: Effusive and professional, but still coming to terms with the new menu
Setting: Sleek, modern room with soft lighting and silhouetted chandeliers, think Knoll meets Vivian Westwood
Compare To: Allen & Delancey, Freemans
Must-haves: Herb salad, chicken, skate, panna cotta
The Deal: Sunday to Thursday $35 three-course Restaurant Week menu extended through Labor Day. No corkage fee Monday nights
Apiary opened last year under head chef Neil Manacle who had worked in Bolo and Bar Americain. It was met with mixed reviews. (New York Magazine gave it one out of five stars and the New York Times noted its "questionable execution.") Perhaps it is not surprising that Apiary spun the roulette wheel of rotating chefs and landed Scott Bryan, who last worked in New York at the highly regarded Veritas where he garnered three stars from the New York Times.
Bryan has rewritten the entire menu. The restaurant is now more focused on seasonal new American cuisine and the execution is more consistent. Certainly writing a menu in these trying economic times is a challenge and Bryan admirably keeps entrees under $27 and appetizers under $15. Despite the relatively cheap price, there's some inventive and sophisticated cooking going on here. Not cheap enough for you? Apiary has extended their $35 three-course Restaurant Week menu through Labor day offering it Sunday through Thursday, with no corkage fee on Monday nights.
If you order the prix fixe menu you are given a choice of three appetizers: The Apiary green salad sprinkled with fine herbs and shallots, doused in a red wine vinaigrette, a slightly under-seasoned rustic Tuscan white bean soup laced with Asiago and an endive and pear salad with Maytag blue cheese, chives and a walnut and sherry vinaigrette. Only the latter disappointed. The monochromatic presentation was visually unappealing and in terms of flavor, it was not much different. The stingy smattering of cheese barely made an impact on the under-dressed endive. I would have been more disappointed if I had ordered it off the a la carte menu at the $12 asking price, considering that for only a $1 more you can get three perfectly cooked scallops ensconced in curry and apple puree. But the salad and soup are both worth your time and your $8 (what they cost a la carte).
The three main course options are skate served over a smoked bacon razor clam chowder, roasted chicken with mascarpone polenta and wild mushrooms drizzled with a madeira jus and last (and as it turns out least) a confit of duck leg with celery root puree and lentils. All but the duck leg are offered on the regular menu. The skate sells for $23 and the chicken for $22.
The true mark of a chef, it is often said, is his or her ability to roast a chicken. (Although others argue that it's how they prepare eggs. But I am not going to get into a chicken and egg debate here.) Well, the chicken at Apiary was about as perfectly roasted as any I have eaten in recent memory—golden crispy skin, completely rendered of any fat and a buttery, fork tender flesh brimming with succulence. The dish was only marginally let down by the over-salted polenta, which sadly did not betray much of the flavor of the mascarpone either.
I bet you are going to see a lot of skate on restaurant menus in the near future if this economy keeps heading in the same direction. Skate is a cheap fish that responses well to being tarted up. If monkfish is poor man's lobster then skate is the poor man's crab. Looking like the aquatic version of skirt steak, skate's stringy character resembles crab meat and in the right hands can be as tender and succulent. It certainly is at Apiary—sauteed to a golden hue with a crunchy crust, the milky inner flesh was ethereally tender. Served over a smokey chowder, the dish was a real triumph.
The confit of duck leg is the only unique item on the prix fixe menu. The budget alternative to the duck breast is offered on the a la carte menu and served over the same celery root puree studded with lentils. Unfortunately the leg did not compare favorably with either other duck confit (try it at Balthazar sometime) or the breast from the main menu ($26). While the requisite crispy skin was present and correct the flesh was a bit dry and rather stringy. The breast on the other hand was beautifully cooked, moist, and toothsome. If you have your heart set on duck I think the added cost of ordering off the a la carte menu is worth it.
For dessert you can choose between a selection of ice cream, a dry cherry financier (it could use a dollop of cream), and a lush vanilla panna cotta, which I particularly enjoyed and recommend.
You get a fair amount of food for the $35 asking price but to really balance the meal, you need some greens for the main courses; being bereft of them seem designed to accommodate side items. At $8 each, it's hard to justify the added expense if you are dining alone but for two people the added cost is $4 per head, still bringing the meal in at under $40. Either the brussels sprouts, predictably served with bacon and shallots, or the baby spinach sauteed in oil and garlic make a fine addition.
Apiary has, for the size of the restaurant, a fairly comprehensive and broadly priced wine list, including many from New York state and on Monday nights there is no corkage fee. For instance, the lovely bottle of Chateau Rauzan Gassies that I recently took with me would have cost over $300 in a restaurant. I did not think that it was mismatched with Bryan's cuisine, which is quite sophisticated despite its relatively moderate price. Of course taking a moderately priced bottle of wine will stretch your dollar further.
Bryan's return to New York is mostly triumphant. The few missteps were largely of execution and not in recipe design. The prix fixe dinner option does offer a saving of up to $7 compared to the a la carte menu, but that assumes you order the endive salad, which I don't recommend. Ordering anything else really saves only $4—not that much of a deal.
That said, the food is of a high level, even at the a la carte price, and the service, while a little unfamiliar with the new menu, is effusive and professional, making Apiary easy to recommend even without ordering off the prix fixe menu.