Chef Mitsunobu Nagae’s culinary training began as a teenager in Osaka, where he made bento boxes for himself and his sister while his parents were away and working long hours. His discovery of a documentary about chef Joël Robuchon inspired him to enroll in culinary school and soon he was working for Robuchon himself in Paris, Tokyo and New York City. In March he opened his own restaurant, l’Abeille, in New York with co-owner Rahul Saito.
Seating 54 and serving a 6-course meal for a fixed price of US$185 in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood, L’Abeille operates in the middle ground between fine French cuisine and bistro-style cuisine known as bistronomy. Inspired by Parisian restaurant Le Comptoir, Nagae tries to make haute cuisine more accessible. While Nagae has spent most of his career in Michelin-starred restaurants, his and Saito’s vision for l’Abeille is more modest: a neighborhood restaurant that attracts regular customers and is equally suited to special occasions and impromptu meals.
“The idea is to have all the elements of fine dining at a much more affordable price – but still very high quality – and to wear it a little more casually or, for lack of a better word, less staid,” Saito said.
The current tasting menu includes Maine lobster with glazed morels, green pea foam and crustacean jus, and grilled American Wagyu beef with caramelized scallions, heirloom potatoes and a triple cream soubise.
L’Abeille also offers an extensive wine list, including a $115 pairing to the tasting menu, and serves both classic and signature cocktails meant to complement, not overpower, the meal. A notable example is Sterling Mason, named after l’Abeille’s building, where banana-infused rum is mixed with espresso Muscovado syrup and coconut water (as well as ice cubes playfully decorated with a figure of a bee, the restaurant’s logo, are labeled). .
Traditional French cuisine is the starting point for l’Abeille’s menu, but Nagae deftly introduces ingredients and techniques from other cuisines. The reasons for its variations are generally twofold: on the one hand, Nagae tries to use as many local products as possible, and so the availability of ingredients becomes a limiting factor; On the other hand, Nagae believes that diners in New York enjoy a greater level of variety in their food compared to other cities he’s worked in.
One example is the squab dish, which was on the tasting menu when it opened and is now available a la carte (one menu item is swapped out for a new dish each week, so the menu is completely new every four to six weeks). . Although squab is a traditional French dish, Nagae deliberately sourced its pigeons from California rather than France because the meat was less wild, and substituted a lighter miso sauce for the thick liver and intestine-based sauce that’s usually called for and a bourbon sauce with Mexican Mole Poblano.
“It’s much tastier for someone unfamiliar with this particular type of protein,” Saito said, translating Nagae from Japanese. “He used his charcoal grilling techniques and added miso. So this is tastier. You bring in a very traditional dish of French cuisine, but you make it more accessible, not only from a price point of view but more from a taste point of view, and you offer it in a way that a much larger audience can enjoy. ”
Here, as elsewhere, Robuchon’s influence on the nagae is palpable. Nagae recalls the intense attention Robuchon gave to each ingredient, embodied in his suggestion that a chef should use no more than three ingredients on a single plate.
“‘Don’t make it too complicated. Don’t overcook it. Don’t overdo it. Let the ingredients shine.” That’s something the chef always keeps in mind when preparing his dishes,” Saito interpreted for Nagae. “And the other thing is that according to the chef, Mr. Robuchon was also very strict with himself. For example plating: when you set up a plate – and often you’ll see that a French dish has a nice little herb on the fish, or on the meat, or on the sauce, or on the puree – that, even that one piece of leaf or flower or whatever comes to that, if that is not a fresh leaf or flower, if it is even remotely tired, that would not be accepted. The head chef learned and continued this love of detail from his Robuchon days.”
Nagae’s in-depth culinary training allows him to bring an element of improvisation to l’Abeille’s menu. In line with the advice of Robuchon and other mentors, his thought process begins with the ingredients at hand rather than set recipes.
“It’s absolutely crucial that he sees the ingredients,” Saito interpreted for Nagae. “Every week he’s going to different farmers markets and stuff just to see ingredients and buy those ingredients at the market. Each chef buys from big companies that you have your ingredients delivered to, but they also look at things that are available locally at the market and farm. And after getting his ingredients, the thought process of what to do with them begins. It’s not like, ‘I’m going to cook this, so let’s find the ingredient.’ It’s more like, “Wow, that’s a great ingredient. What do I do with it?’ And that’s what he enjoys the most.”
Creating the menu is a collaborative effort, according to Nagae and Saito. L’Abeille Executive Chef Elijah Arizmendi worked with Nagae at Shun in New York and had previously worked at Robuchon’s Restaurant in Las Vegas. The sous chef worked with Nagae at Le chateau de Joël Robuchon in Tokyo, and the line chefs have backgrounds that include Thomas Keller’s upscale restaurants Per Se in New York City and The French Laundry in Yountville, California. All kitchen staff contribute ideas when new recipes take shape in Saito refers to a peer review process.
“These are the people who, in the chef’s own words, are extremely ambitious,” Saito interpreted for Nagae. “And they’re full of energy, but [also] full of knowledge that they have built up in various high-end restaurants in this relatively short time, working under very experienced and talented chefs. So that’s a huge source of ideas that everyone literally throws out every day, whether it’s how to cook the trout, how to lay out the plates, to simple things like salad: how to process the different vegetables and how to put them together. … Just given the pedigree of the people we have, with their experience and working knowledge, that’s a huge plus.”
One of Nagae’s goals is to help create a new generation of culinary talent. Whether they stay at l’Abeille or run their own kitchens, Nagae’s kitchen team will be names to watch out for going forward.
Nagae moved to New York in 2017 to work at l’Atelier de Joël Robuchon. When Robuchon alum Alain Verzeroli opened Shun in 2019, Nagae joined the kitchen as Executive Chef. Shun managed to earn a Michelin star before the pandemic forced it to close, leaving Nagae without a job. He considered returning to Japan, but Saito, a frequent patron of l’Atelier and Shun, presented him with another plan. Saito invited Nagae to cook a series of dinners for friends and family at his house, an arrangement that morphed into a restaurant partnership over the course of several lengthy discussions.
This is both Nagae and Saito’s first experience as a restaurant owner. Having worked primarily in finance, Saito believes his business acumen and project management skills have helped him navigate the steep learning curve involved in running a restaurant. It also helps that Nagae is able to oversee the details of kitchen management while Saito takes care of it
the beverage program, decor, setting and other business functions.
“Every single person I know, every single good friend I have — they’ve all said, ‘Have you lost your mind?’ when I said I’m opening a restaurant. I see it more from an analytical perspective. I’m trying to understand why it’s so difficult and what the obstacles or traps are?” Saito said.
The restaurant also benefits from its experienced staff, according to Saito. The front-of-house staff, most of whom have previously worked at l’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, not only seemingly effortlessly convey the sophistication that is Nagae and Saito’s goal for l’Abeille, but have also helped Saito to learn the ins and out of gastronomy.
“Culture building, service level building, can’t be done overnight,” Saito said.
Nagae and Saito agree that l’Abeille’s top priority is curating the guest’s dining experience. While the food may be the star of the show, for the co-restaurateurs, every detail counts. Inside the decor, you can feel the back-and-forth between the hallmarks of fine dining and the atmosphere of a casual neighborhood restaurant: the lighting is warm and dim, but not dim; the conversation with a low murmur, the music ringing softly in the background. The tables have no tablecloths, and the visible piping along the ceiling is a reminder of the building’s earlier days as a coffee and sugar factory. Certainly, l’Abeille falls more on the fine dining side than casual eatery, but it’s not stuffy.
The crockery deserves a special mention. Each course of the tasting menu is served on a different dish, a nod to the influence Robuchon’s emphasis on serving had on the nagae. The steak course, for example, is served on a black plate with a pearlescent finish. The foie gras crème brûlée and onion ice cream are served in a ceramic egg, which the server opens to reveal an equatorial ‘crack’ in the ‘shell’. The strawberry, lychee, rose and shiso palate cleanser is served in a quasi-toroidal bowl that seems to have the sorbet sitting in the center of a gravity well.
Saito and Nagae don’t have any firm plans for l’Abeille’s future just yet, as their focus is on getting the restaurant up and running. At the moment they are satisfied that, according to their own observations, people from the neighborhood not only visit l’Abeille, but also like to come back.
“It’s the experience and it’s the whole package: that’s what we’re trying to do,” Saito said. “And I think it’s worked so far because it’s elegant. It’s small. It all adds up to a very cosy, sublime, elegant atmosphere [experience] with great food and a beautiful setting.”