Quaint, humble, cozy, charming: these all can be used to describe Petite Abeille ("little bee" in French). Although the mini-chain of small, very cute, tres Belges bistros began in 1995, this was my first visit. I visited the location nearest me on West 17th street, neighboring the historic Chelsea Inn (a rustic little hotel that might be New York's best little-known lodging deal). I had made a seven pm reservation that was unnecessary given the sparsely populated room. But it filled up quickly, quickly and by eight there wasn't a table to be had. Our waitress noted that brunch conjures up formidable lines and often it's a matter of gently nudging customers out in order to close up at night. This might be in part due to the special nightly deals offered by Abeille: Wednesday night offers Moules a Go Go - all you can eat mussels for $27, and Thursday's 1 1/4 lb. lobster costs the same, both beer-inclusive. But we went on a Tuesday, where it's half-priced bottles of wine, and we weren't drinking. That said, the little bee is fairly moderately priced.
Our waitress was not French, but described the menu and the day's specials jubilantly, and the general manager, who was very French (de Lyon, en fait) supervises the room approvingly. We order a beet salad to begin, which was just plentiful enough to share, although on a hungrier night I might have handled it solo. It boasted a lovely, lemony vinaigrette over tangled watercress and crumbles of goat cheese. The greens were so fresh and the hearty beets roasted tender that they held they're own in spite of a slightly heavy hand with the dressing. I would've liked to have tried the wild mushroom ragout on toast, but didn't think I quite had the appetite that night, so might have to entertain a return visit.
Grilled salmon was offered as a special, served atop a generous wad of garlicky sauteed and mushrooms on a bed of fluffy, creamy mashed potatoes. This was by far the better of the two entrees we tried, for while my Codfish Flemish Style was cooked delicately enough to make Ripert proud, its berbed broth had a harsh, sharp
sharp bite that imbued the too-lightly steamed brussels sprouts below, compounding their bitter, acrid flavor. The cod perched high enough atop to avoid contamination, although it required removing a prickly thatch of dried bay laurel and thyme riddled with lemon zest that might have contributed to some of the bitterness.
The roasted brussels sprouts that come as a side dish are exponentially better: in fact, they are quite great- at least in comparison.
Desserts keep with the theme: classics such as chocolate mousse, fondue and cheese are to be had, but poffertjes, tiny Flemish doughnuts heavily dusted in powdered sugar, or try a waffle... there's are scrumptious. Crisp-edged, light and golden, I would normally have gone for strawberries but for that it's March, so instead opted for a plain gaufre, doused in powdered sugar and a topped with a swirly cap of dense chantilly. These would (and do) make a fine breakfast, snack or dessert.
Petite Abeille isn't going to change your life or rock your world. But if you have one nearby as a local haunt, you'd be smart to become a regular. It's one of those places where it's very easy to do so.