Chef Mitsunobu Nagae’s culinary education began when he was a teenager in Osaka, making bento boxes for himself and his sister while his parents were away from home working long hours. His discovery of a documentary on chef Joël Robuchon inspired him to enroll in culinary school, and before long he was working for Robuchon himself in Paris, Tokyo and New York City. In March he opened a restaurant of his own, l’Abeille, with co-owner Rahul Saito, in New York.
L’Abeille, which seats 54 people and serves a $185 six-course prix-fixe menu in the Manhattan neighborhood of Tribeca, operates in the middle ground between French fine dining and bistro cuisine known as bistronomy. Taking inspiration from Parisian restaurant Le Comptoir, Nagae seeks to make haute cuisine more approachable. While Nagae has spent the majority of his career working at Michelin-starred destination restaurants, his and Saito’s vision for l’Abeille is more modest: a neighborhood restaurant cultivating repeat customers, equally suitable for special occasions and for impromptu meals.
“The idea is to carry all the elements of fine dining with a much more approachable price point — but still very high quality — and a little bit more casual or, for lack of a better word, less stuffy set up,” 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 spring onion, heirloom potato and a triple cream soubise.
L’Abeille also offers an extensive wine list, including a $115 pairing with the tasting menu, and serves both classic and proprietary cocktails designed to complement, rather than to overwhelm, the food. A notable example is the Sterling Mason, named after l’Abeille’s building, in which banana-infused rum is mixed with espresso-muscovado syrup and coconut water (as well as ice cubes playfully inscribed with the figure of a bee, the restaurant’s logo).
Traditional French cuisine is the starting point for l’Abeille’s menu, but Nagae deftly introduces ingredients and techniques from other cuisines. The reasoning behind his variations is generally twofold: on the one hand, Nagae tries to use as much local produce as possible, and so the availability of ingredients becomes a limiting factor; on the other, Nagae believes that diners in New York, as compared to other cities in which he has worked, enjoy a higher level of diversity in their food.
A case in point is the squab dish which was on the tasting menu at opening and is now available à la carte (every week, one menu item is switched for a new dish, such that the menu is completely new every four to six weeks). Although squab is a traditional French dish, Nagae deliberately sourced his pigeons from California rather than France, because the meat was less gamey, and replaced the thick, liver-and-intestine based sauce that’s normally called for with a lighter miso sauce and a bourbon sauce inflected with Mexican mole Poblano.
“It's much more palatable for someone who is not familiar with this particular protein type,” Saito said, translating for Nagae from Japanese. “He used his techniques of charcoal grilling them, adding miso on it. So that is more palatable. You're bringing in a very traditional dish from French cuisine, but you're making it more approachable, not simply from a price perspective, but more from a taste perspective, and providing it in a way that a much bigger crowd can enjoy.”
Here, as elsewhere, Robuchon’s influence on Nagae is palpable. Nagae recalls the intense attention Robuchon paid to each ingredient, epitomized in his suggestion that a chef should use no more than three ingredients on a single plate.
“‘Don't over-complicate it. Don't overcook it. Don't overdress it. Let the ingredients shine.’ That is something that chef always keeps in mind when making his dishes,” Saito interpreted for Nagae. “And the other thing is, according to chef, Mr. Robuchon was extremely strict on himself as well. For example, plating: When you plate a plate — and oftentimes you see a French dish comes with a nice little herb on top of the fish or on the meat or on the sauce or on the purée — that, even that one piece of leaf or flower or whatever goes on top of that, if that is not a fresh leaf or a fresh flower, if it is remotely tired, that would not be accepted. That attention to details is also something chef has learned and carries on from his Robuchon days.”
Nagae’s depth of culinary training enables him to bring an improvisational element to l’Abeille’s menu. In keeping with the advice of Robuchon and other mentors, his thought process begins with the ingredients at hand rather than with set recipes.
“It is absolutely critical that he gets to see the ingredients,” Saito interpreted for Nagae. “Every week, he's at multiple different farmers’ markets and so on, just to go see ingredients and buy those ingredients at the market. Every chef buys from big companies where you get your ingredients delivered, but he's also looking at things that are locally available in the market and at the farm. And after he gets his ingredients, then the thought process of what to do with it begins. It's not that, ‘I'm going to cook this, so let's find the ingredient.’ It's more like, ‘Wow, this is a great ingredient. What do I do with this?’ And that's for him the most fun part.”
Crafting the menu is a collaborative endeavor, according to Nagae and Saito. L’Abeille’s chef de cuisine, 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 Château de Joël Robuchon in Tokyo, and the line cooks have backgrounds that include Thomas Keller’s fine dining restaurants Per Se in New York City and The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif. All of the kitchen staff contribute ideas as new recipes take shape, in what Saito refers to as a collegial vetting process.
“These are the people that — chef’s own word — are extremely ambitious,” Saito interpreted for Nagae. “And they are full of energy, but [also] full of knowledge that they have built in this relatively short period of time in different very high-end restaurants and working under very skilled and talented chefs. So that is a massive source of ideas that everyone is throwing out literally every day, be it how to cook the trout, how to design the plates, to even simple things like salad: how to process the different vegetables and how to put it together. … Purely given the pedigree of people that we have, with their experience and work knowledge, that is a huge plus.”
One of Nagae’s goals is to help to create a new generation of culinary talents. Whether they stay at l’Abeille or move on to lead their own kitchens, Nagae’s team of chefs will be names to look out for in the future.
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 chef de cuisine. Shun managed to attain a Michelin star before the pandemic forced it to close, leaving Nagae without work. He considered returning to Japan, but Saito, a frequent patron of l’Atelier and of Shun, presented him with a different plan. Saito invited Nagae to cook a series of dinners for friends and family at his home, an arrangement which transformed into a restaurant partnership over the course of several long discussions.
This is both Nagae’s and Saito’s first experience owning a restaurant. Saito, who has worked primarily in finance, believes that his business acumen and his skills at project management have helped him to navigate the steep learning curve involved in operating a restaurant. It helps, too, that Nagae is able to oversee the particulars of kitchen management while Saito handles
the beverage program, the décor, hiring and other business functions.
“Every single person that I know, every single good friend that I have — they have all said, ‘Have you lost your mind?’ when I said I'm opening a restaurant. I look at it more from an analytical perspective. I try to see, why is it so difficult and what are the obstacles or what are the traps?” Saito said.
The restaurant also benefits from its experienced staff, according to Saito. The front-of-house employees, most of whom previously worked at l’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, not only impart, seemingly effortlessly, the refinement which is Nagae’s and Saito’s goal for l’Abeille, but also have helped Saito to learn the ins and outs of the restaurant business.
“Building a culture, building the level of service, is not something you can do overnight,” Saito said.
Nagae and Saito agree that l’Abeille’s first priority is to curate the patron’s dining experience. While the food may be the star of the show, every detail matters to the co-restaurateurs. In the decor one feels the push and pull between the marks of fine dining and the feel of a casual neighborhood restaurant: Lighting is warm and muted, but not dim; the conversation at a low murmur, the music faintly tinkling in the background. The tables don’t have tablecloths, and the exposed piping along the ceiling recalls the building’s former days as a coffee and sugar factory. Certainly l’Abeille falls more on the side of fine dining than on that of a casual eatery, but it is not stuffy.
The tableware is worth highlighting. Each course in the tasting menu is served on a different dish, an indication of the influence Robuchon’s emphasis on plating had on Nagae. The steak course, for instance, is served on a black plate with a nacreous glimmer. The foie gras crème brûlée and onion ice cream are served in a ceramic egg which the server opens, revealing an equatorial “crack” in the “shell.” The palate cleanser of strawberry, lychee, rose and shiso is served in a quasi-toroidal bowl which makes the sorbet seem to sit at the center of a gravity well.
Saito and Nagae have not yet determined any fixed plans for the future of l’Abeille, as they focus on getting the restaurant up and running. For now, they are satisfied that, per their own observation, people from the neighborhood are not only visiting l’Abeille but coming back for more.
“It's the experience, and it's the package: that's what we're trying to create,” Saito said. “And I think that so far it’s working, because it is elegant. It is small. That all together brings a very cozy, uplifted, elegant [experience] with great food and a nice environment.”