A former Joël Robuchon protégé will be leading the kitchen at a new upscale Tribeca spot opening in the spring. For chef and co-owner Mitsunobu Nagae — who has worked at Joël Robuchon restaurants in Tokyo, Paris, and NYC — this will be his first solo restaurant, located at 412 Greenwich Street between Laight and Hubert streets.
Called L’Abeille, which means bee in French, the name is a reference to Nagae’s nickname, Mitsu, which means honey. The concept is a “bistronomy,” a phrase coined by a French food critic in 2004 that Nagae and his partners explain as part bistro and part gastronomy. Their hope is to fill what they see as an open niche in the New York market: a restaurant that straddles the line between ultra high-end French haute cuisine and more casual bistros. A bistronomy offers French food at a medium-to-high price point in a setting that is “sophisticated but not formal,” Nagae and his partners shared with Eater.
While it remains to be seen if the city truly needs to fill this niche, Nagae’s cooking has already been tested in the city. He was a sous chef on the opening team at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in New York and contributed to the restaurant garnering two Michelin stars in 2019 before he was named chef de cuisine at Shun and Le Jardinier, two Robuchon restaurants which secured one Michelin star each within six months of opening.
Nagae has other partners in L’Abeille, all Tribeca residents who believed the neighborhood was lacking an upscale French restaurant — though it’s worth noting Frenchette has been open since 2018, and One White Street, which recently opened and is not strictly French, employs a chef from the famed Frenchie in Paris and the menu is very much in the mold of the neo-bistro movement. Still, Rahul Saito and a handful of his neighbors have been longtime fans of Joël Robuchon’s restaurants in Paris, Tokyo, and New York. When the pandemic shuttered Shun and Le Jardinier, they decided to support Nagae, one of their favorite chefs, by inviting him to cook for them in their home during lockdown.
“We loved eating at Robuchon, and we loved what chef Mitsu was doing there and also at Shun,” says Saito. “So just out of friendship and a desire to help, we asked him to cook for us, as a private family meal. It originally started with once a week then it grew more and more.”
Nagae lost his job when the lockdown started in spring 2020, and he was considering returning to Japan (he is originally from Osaka) when the group of Tribeca residents approached him. The Osaka native found catering on his own a challenge, from buying ingredients to working in new kitchens.
Once it became apparent Shun and Le Jardinier were not reopening anytime soon (of the two, Le Jardinier is slated to reopen), the conversations turned more serious among the friends, and the idea to open a restaurant together became a reality.
“We are financially knowledgeable people and chef Mitsu is a very well-rounded, talented chef that can bring in something needed to the market and obviously, as a business, it’s an opportune time —it’s an unfortunate time, but it’s also an opportune time to go into it with a little bit more margin of error in your pocket,” says Saito, referring to lower rents some restaurants have been able to secure.
And as much as the partners tout a more approachable environment, Saito says they are aiming for two Michelin stars, a question he says he had to answer to other investors. The restaurant will have around 54 seats, with 12 arranged around a bar and the rest at banquettes and tables. There will be a six-course tasting menu, which will have new dishes added to it approximately every week, as well as an a la carte menu based on seasonal local produce as much as possible. They plan to initially open for dinner and then add a pre-fixe lunch about six months after opening.
Saito and Nagae say that New York and North America will also influence the menu, since they will be using local ingredients, pointing to an experiment with a squab pie dish with Mexican mole sauce. One dish the two agree will be on the opening menu is a poached oyster in a double beef consomme and, come next winter, a roasted venison with caramelized salsify and truffle sauce will likely show up on the menu.
Although staff is still being hired, the group will bring in two former colleagues of Nagae’s into the kitchen, one from Shun and another from his time cooking at the Robuchon restaurant in Tokyo.
As the restaurant fine tunes its menu, Nagae says his favorite cooking style is taking French country classics and making them more opulent — a popular technique in Parisian restaurants. For example, cassoulet is one of his favorite dishes, which is typically made with duck confit and white beans, and he likes to replace the duck with lobster.
“I pick a local, very authentic traditional cuisine and rearrange it in a more delicate way,” says Nagae. “And that’s how I view the essence of French cuisine.”