Every few decades, when the inevitable Wall Street cataclysm hits, the giant dinosaurs of the New York restaurant world begin to totter, and the tiny mammals start to peek their heads up in the smoke and scurry around the charred landscape. As the catchy, slightly twee name suggests, Apiary, which opened not long ago in the East Village, seems to have been designed with just such a catastrophe in mind. None of the dishes on the minimalist menu costs over $30, and the small space has been decorated with a dainty, economical hand. The miniature bar area offers a selection of price-sensitive wines and soothing Trappist ales, and it’s set off from the dining room with elegant but simple wooden shutters. There is a bright spray of flowers by the small kitchen entrance, and in the elfin-size dining room, three silver lampshades have been stenciled to reflect the shadows of oversize chandeliers on the walls. The effect is cheery and also slightly claustrophobic, like dining inside a modish, intricately appointed blast shelter.
But no one else at my table seemed to mind these close quarters, particularly the women, who, in what was perhaps another sign of the times, began knocking back glasses of the house white-wine sangria like drunken pirates. Their mood was further improved by the food, which is overseen by Neil Manacle, a practiced big-restaurant cook (for years, he served as the right-hand man to Bobby Flay) who manages to take the usual roster of standard small-restaurant dishes and imbue them with a spicy, eclectic punch. The worst of the appetizers, surprisingly, was the green salad, which consisted of a few shreds of lettuce and not much else. Order the crostini, however, and you get a crunchy piece of fried toast buried in delicious Indian-summer tomatoes. The generous crab cake is pleasantly heavier on crab than bread crumbs, and the calamari is battered with rice flour, which gives it an especially light crunch. Best of all, though, are the mussels, which are dunked not in watery white wine but a milky broth flavored with lemon and Spanish sausage.
Manacle uses all sorts of tricks to make his entrées appear grander than they really are. Piles of Moroccan-style spices are employed to turn a single, wan chicken breast ($21) into something that you actually might encounter in one of the more Westernized precincts of Marrakech. Nothing could save my “slow-cooked” rabbit from tasting like strips of week-old turkey (their dryness is accentuated by plastic strips of Serrano ham), but my pistoulike assemblage of scallops and head-on prawns was well worth its $26 sticker price. Order the seared halibut ($25), and you will find it enlivened with fried capers and spoonfuls of a buttery anchovy vinaigrette. The roasted pork tenderloin ($23) has a smoky, almost Asian sweetness to it (it’s flavored with figs and scattered with smoked paprika), and the carefully sliced hanger steak ($27) is nicely charred and garnished with garlic-rich chimichurri sauce.
The small, acoustically challenged space ensures that the noise levels at Apiary increase in intensity throughout the evening. Things got so loud on one of my recent visits that no one seemed to notice the marginal, ready-made desserts. They include a chalky, bitter cheesecake made with a little too much goat cheese, and the kind of bulky, oversweet strawberry-filled crêpes that used to be served in posh New York restaurants circa 1972. Chocolate is usually the safest bet in small restaurants that can’t afford pastry chefs, and that’s the case here. The brownie tart comes with a smooth, buttery crust and a scoop of housemade ice cream sprinkled with cashews. Instead of apples, the kitchen uses a sweet mash of peaches in their pleasant, country-style crisp. Complement it, in these lean times, the way the locavores do, with wedges of well-selected New York State cheese, served with a pot of artisanal honey, of course.
Delicatessen, which opened recently on the corner of Lafayette and Prince in Soho, aims to do for corned beef and pickles what Ruby Foo’s did for the Chinese dumpling. Peer around the clean corner space on a busy evening and you will witness all sorts of pseudo-nightclub oddities. Famished-looking models lounge around white Formica tabletops, nibbling hesitantly on bits of vulcanized pastrami and noxious helpings of bland chopped liver. There are blintzes filled with saccharine deposits of cherry verbena (bad), and ricotta cheese and corn (not so bad), and a Reuben sandwich that looks like it’s been issued directly from the kitchens of Continental Airlines. There is also a stygian cocktail lounge decorated with ancient apothecary bottles, and as you chew your way through your silver bucket of deep-fried “Reuben Fritters,” you’re serenaded by the unceasing thrum of a disco backbeat.
This leaden fritter creation has a certain deathly allure (it’s a kind of savory, corned beef–filled zeppole, with a side of Thousand Island dressing), but most of the faux deli dishes at Delicatessen (beef stroganoff without any beef, salt-saturated matzo balls) are pretty grim. But a few of the non-pseudo-deli items are palatable, especially if you visit during the daylight hours, when the backbeat is turned down and the joint fills up with assorted flaneurs from the neighborhood. My “Chinese-style” salmon fillet was decent, and so was the fritto misto, containing haricots verts and wheels of frizzled lemon. There’s a nice Caesar salad on the menu (dressed with appealingly silvery anchovies), a series of good lunchtime baguette sandwiches (try the Vietnamese bánh mì with ground pork), and an Ovaltine pudding parfait for dessert that’s better than it sounds. The breakfast service is semicompetent, too, but beware: When I ordered the scrambled-egg “Delicatessen scramble” one bright Sunday morning, this pseudo-deli was out of lox.