New York City’s crowded roster of French restaurants can add yet another spot with the opening of L’Abeille in Tribeca at 412 Greenwich Street, between Laight and Hubert streets. The restaurant is helmed by chef Mitsunobu Nagae, who brings years of experience cooking at a handful of acclaimed chef Joël Robuchon restaurants around the world.
L’Abeille, French for “the bee,” is a play on chef Mitsunobu Nagae’s nickname Mitsu, which is “honey” in Japanese. It’s also a reflection of the upscale restaurant’s menu, which relies on French cooking at its core and layers in traditional Japanese ingredients and cooking techniques. This style of cooking is not unfamiliar territory for Nagae, who brings nearly 15 years of experience working mostly in French fine dining restaurants. He and his business partners are aiming to set themselves apart from other establishments across town with butter-drenched menus and run-of-the-mill steak frites by focusing on the concept of “bistronomy,” an early aughts term coined by a French food critic that refers to restaurants that combine elements of fine dining with more casual bistros.
The six-course tasting menu ($180) and a la carte options at L’Abeille are perhaps best described as classic French with Japanese influences sprinkled throughout. The roasted squab, served on the tasting menu and a la carte, is one example: Squab is a traditional French ingredient, say Nagae, but he uses an American breed of the bird because the flavor is less gamey. The breast and leg meat undergo several rounds of roasting and grilling, first in a pan and then on a Japanese charcoal grill. Red miso is also applied, which imparts some sweetness. It’s plated atop a swirl of bourbon sauce that’s fortified with a dark chocolate, a play on Mexican mole. Bitter greens, such as arugula rabe, sit on the side.
Other dishes that draw from the cannon of French cuisine include a foie gras torchon, fluke served with a bouillabaisse sauce, and spears of white asparagus topped with creme fraiche with an optional supplement of caviar. Most of the wine menu is composed of bottles from France with some additional vintages from around the world, including South Africa and Italy.
“There are a lot of fine dining restaurants. There are a lot of bistros,” says Nagae, through his business partner Rahul Saito, who helped translate. “We’re one of the newcomers in the market and wish to make our mark in New York’s dining scene.”
L’Abeille is located in a part of Tribeca with an industrial feel and cobblestone streets. Inside, the restaurant has 54 seats total at tables, banquettes, and an elegant bar. There are velvet cushioned seats but no white tablecloths. It’s also meant to serve as an upscale spot for locals, such as Saito and other partners who invited Nagae to cook in their homes during the pandemic lockdown.
From crowd favorites like Keith McNally’s Pastis to popular Brooklyn spots like Le Crocodile in the Wythe Hotel, another French restaurant opening in New York City is nothing new. But Nagae and his investors believe there’s always room for more Gallic food.
The 34-year-old Nagae has long looked up to Robuchon, who died in 2018. He has cooked in kitchens in Paris and Tokyo in his career before coming to New York to help open L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in 2017 and later Shun, a Midtown East spot headed by Alain Verzeroli that Robuchon’s restaurant group opened to much fanfare. At L’Abeille, he oversees five other chefs, all under the age of 30, who he says shares his ambitions. He adds that they hope to bring a different point of view to French cooking, one where there’s the same obsession with exacting standards of Michelin-rated restaurants while still remaining more casual.
“The tradition, history, and skills for French dining is very deep. You can make it traditional fine dining or you can be playful or innovative as you want,” says Nagae. “There’s always room for something different.”