Note: Well, that was fast. Après closed just nine days after our visit, and before I got around to hitting “publish” on this review. Après wasn’t busy, and we thought it needed to get customers—pronto. That didin’t work out for them. We still think chef Mazen Mustafa is a talent who’ll be a success somewhere else, and so, for the record, we’re happy to recognize his all-too-brief tenure here. After a renovation, the space re-opened as Unidentified Flying Chickens.
Remember Apiary, the East Village restaurant with Scott Bryan, the former Veritas chef, in the kitchen? We gave it zero stars in 2009, and Eater deathwatched it in 2010, a judgment they reversed in 2012.
Turns out they had the right idea but the wrong sell-by date. Bryan left in April 2014, Apiary closed in May 2014, and after a brief renovation, it reopened as Après with chef Mazen Mustafa, Paul Liebrandt’s former top lieutenant at both Corton and The Elm.
Owner Jenny Moon was smart to recognize that a new name was far more likely to be reviewed than a new chef under the previous name. Aside from that, she changed very little. The outdoor signage uses the same typeface as before, allowing the letters ‘a’ and ‘p’ to be re-used. (I am just kidding: the sign appears to be new, although the typeface is indeed the same.) Inside, Après’ décor is extremely similar to the generic Lower Manhattan upscale casual I remember at Apiary.
Mustafa serves recognizably Liebrandtish cuisine, and if it’s not quite as good as his mentor’s best work, it is considerably less expensive than any Liebrandt restaurant in recent memory. On an à la carte menu with no clear division between appetizers and entrées, there are eleven items priced between $14–24; desserts are all $9.
The four-course prix fixe at $58 is a terrific deal, and if a party of three order differently, as we did, it is possible to sample practically all of the menu. (As recently as 2013, Apiary was serving a three-course prix fixe for $38, with no corkage on Mondays.)
As a point of comparison, on the current menu at The Elm, similar to this one in many respects, prices range from $18–30, and there is no prix fixe option. I have read numerous reports that The Elm has declined since Mustafa left.
The menu doesn’t credit a mixologist, but most of the house cocktails ($15), like many of the savory dishes, are focused on a vegatable, hence the “Ramp,” which is basically a martini with a swig of ramp decorating the glass, or the “Cucumber,” with vodka, triple sec, and chartreuse.
On Apiary’s wine list, at least as of 2009, I struggled to find an approachable red for under $100 a bottle. That is no longer the case, and probably hasn’t been for a while. A 2008 Les Hauts de Smith was $58, approximately a zero markup from the only bottles I can find at retail. The rest of the list is not online, but as I recall it was deeper than usual for a new restaurant (mostly carried over from Apiary, I assume).
Once the food started to arrive, servers’ explanations went by rather quickly, so I don’t have a description for the amuse bouche (above right). Sourdough bread (above left) came with soft, but not quite enough, butter.
The first three dishes are similar to descriptions on the current Elm menu:
FLUKE CRUDO (above left): green strawberries, coconut cream, green curry consommé
WHITE ASPARAGUS (above center): shrimp marinated little gem, sunfllower seed, buttermilk
FOIS GRAS TORCHON (above right): beets, rhubarb, campari]
These were right out of the Liebrandt playbook. We were especially taken with the asparagus, and the fois gras could easily be the same preparation we’d had at Corton.
The next three items are named for their vegetable component, although each of them features a protein:
HEIRLOOM CARROTS (above left): ruby red shrimp, cumin, sea buckthorn
ROSTED ROMAINE (above center): sweetbreads, cipollini onions, summer truffle
“POMMES KAO” (above right): octopus, bacon XO sauce, peanut
Although the Pommes Kao had the cleverest name, it was the only dud of the evening, the rather gloppy potatoes tasting like microwaved leftovers.
Vegetables in the photos above mostly obscure the proteins in the last three courses:
BLACK BASS (above left): chanterelles, black radish, nasturtium jus
CELTUCE (above center): rohan duck leg, turnip, asian pear
BRASSICA (above right): roasted short rib, mustard greens, pistachio
These were all excellent, but I would single out the short rib, which I would guess was prepared sous vide to remarkable tenderness, with a visible pink glow, rather than the usual multi-day braising that can produce excellent results in the right hands, but reduces the meat to a uniform dark brown.
Finally, the desserts:
DARK CHOCOLATE CRÈMEUX (above left): black cherry, pistachio, carob meringue
CHALLERHOCKER (above center): piquillo pâté de fruit, marcona almond, rye crisp
BEET CAKE (above right): huckleberry, yogurt ice cream, dill pollen
These were again very good, although the beet cake read a bit better than it tasted.
Two weeks after the re-opening, the staff is still getting its sea legs. Dinner took over two hours, with a substantial pause (I would guess at least one-half hour) between the second and third courses. The server apologized, and said that as a bonus our entrées were studded with black truffle shavings, so indistinct that I could neither see nor taste them.
These and a few other minor fumbles aside, Après has the makings of an important restaurant, but first it needs to be noticed. On a Wednesday evening, the dining room was only about 1/3rd full when we arrived, and by the time we left at close to 10:00, there were no remaining customers. This is not promising in the East Village, which caters to a late crowd. I had suspected that Apiary aimed too high for the neighborhood, and that could be doubly true of Après.
It will be interesting to see what the management will do to attract a crowd, and how Mustafa might tweak the menu if it doesn’t work. My advice is to go now.
Apres (60 Third Avenue between 10th & 11th Streets, East Village)
Food: Modernist American, in the style of Paul Liebrandt
Service: A work in progress, but should eventually be just fine
Ambiance: Upscale casual