In recent years, Southern cooking has made only a slight dent on the New York restaurant scene. Marcus Samuelsson’s The Red Rooster is probably the most conspicuous major success. I struggle to name many others.
I can’t really pinpoint a reason for that. Most restaurants, of course, are imitative—all of those nearly-identical farm-to-table restaurants, for example. Perhaps all that’s needed is a break-out hit that others will then strive to replicate. (I suspect Samuelsson’s place is seen as a product of his celebrity, and doesn’t lend itself to copying.)
Welcome to King Bee, which features the Southern cuisine known as Acadian, which traces its roots to the 17th century, when French Canadians settled in what is now Louisiana, and France controlled the midsection of North America from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Mississippi Delta. (The Canadian Maritime provinces and portions of northern Maine were once called Acadia.)
Napoleon, finding France over-extended, sold the enormous Louisiana Territory in 1803 to the United States, for the remarkable bargain price of four cents per acre. A spray of French-sounding place names, remnants of the French legal system, and a hybrid French–Southern cuisine, are the Acadians’ legacy in Louisiana today.
King Bee is the brainchild of Ken Jackson, the former co-owner of the New Orleans restaurant Herbsaint. To run the kitchen, he’s recruited the chef Jeremie Tomczak, who worked for Marcus Samuelsson at both Red Rooster and Aquavit. He’s is a real find, and deserves more notice than he’s received to date. The restaurant has been open about six months; most of the professional critics have not visited, and that’s a pity (see The New Yorker’s rave).
The menu is the hybrid you’d expect it to be, with certain obviously French–Canadian items (Poutine Râpée), others that seem purely Southern (Louisiana Crawfish), and the Creekstone ribeye steak that mysteriously finds its way into the cuisine of so many nations and cultures.
Prices are moderate by today’s standards: hors d’oeuvres $6–12, appetizers $10–14, entrées $18–32, desserts $6–8.
The meal begins with country bread and soft, whipped butter (above left). My son began with the rabbit rillettes ($8; above right). My wife had the Upstate Salad ($10; below left), which I suspect has little to do with Louisiana or Acadia, but is more impressive in life than comes across in the photo.
But by far the most striking of the starters was the foie gras bread pudding with maple syrup ($15; above right). It’s only March, and I’m sure this is one of the best dishes I’ll have all year.
My son ordered that ribeye steak ($32; above left). It’s not what I’d choose in this type of restaurant, but I’ve got to think it’s one of the city’s better steaks below $40. The duck ($26; above right) is terrific, served with root vegetables and tasso ham, a spicy variety of smoked pork that is often found in Louisiana cuisine.
Roasted cod ($23; above left) is served in an andouille broth, with cockles, razor clams, uni, and kale. For dessert, we chose the cookie plate ($6; above right).
The cheese selection is excellent for such a small restaurant; we weren’t that hungry, so we had just one ($6; right). (You can have three for $16, or five for $25.)
The wine list is about 60% French, with the rest evenly divided between Central Europe and the New World, priced fairly in relation to the food, with plenty of bottles below $60. The Domaine Rolet Arbois 2009 ($36) turned out to be a poor choice, but only because my family was not as fond of Jura wines as I am.
The service was a bit over-eager, but generally good. The restaurant was perhaps half full, or a bit over that, on a Saturday evening. With the chef executing as well as he is, it is time for King Bee to get noticed.
King Bee (424 E. Ninth Street between First Avenue and Avenue A, East Village)
Food: Southern Louisiana (Acadian)
Service: Generally good
Ambiance: A low-lit typical East Village dining room