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60 Third Ave., between 10th and 11th Sts. (212) 254-0888

apiary.jpgMon.-Thurs., 5:30-11 p.m.; Fri-Sat., 5:30 p.m.-midnight; Sun., 5:30-10:30 p.m. CUISINE: New American
VIBE: Stylish E. Village eatery
OCCASION: First date, group dinner
DON’T-MISS DISHES: Roasted peaches and serrano ham; spice-crusted lamb
PRICE: Appetizers, $12; entrees, $25; dessert, $8
CAPSULE: Honey and spice

Apiary reminds me how hard it is to get it right. To most of us, dinner is just dinner. But to a restaurant’s chef and its staff, it’s much more complicated.

Imagine all the questions that have to be answered before your entrée arrives. What’s fresh today? Can we make a profit on that? Am I going to shoot myself if I have to roast another chicken? Is this dish too much like Bobby Flay’s? Would anybody notice if I just pulled it off the menu? What’s eating the sous chef?

Really, it’s a wonder the food ever shows up on the table at all. And yet somehow, sometimes, someone does get it right. When that happens, out comes a dish you never forget – a dish that seems effortless, almost logical, the very idea of what good food can be.

Too often, though, out comes a dish that reads well on the menu and tastes good in theory – but not necessarily on the plate. Case in point?

The slow-cooked rabbit at Apiary.

Before us we find: roasted loin wrapped in serrano ham, wild mushrooms, brown-butter spaetzle and a red-wine reduction sauce. What has the power to unify these ingredients? Nothing, really. The reduction sauce overwhelms the loin, erasing the poor rabbit’s identity. And here’s a rule of thumb: What’s wrapped in ham tastes like ham.

Unless it’s peaches.

One of the dishes that comes out really right at Apiary is an arrangement of honey-roasted peaches, wrapped in ribbons of Serrano ham and served over a mustard-seed-flecked frisée salad. What makes this appetizer work so well is the harmony of salt, sweetness and spice.

But harmony isn’t the only thing that makes a dish work. My favorite entrée was the lamb chops, which were dominated by a fired crust of sumac, cumin, fennel, salt and pepper. I could eat the spice crust on its own. Or the crust on the chicken, for that matter. Technically, it was an aromatic reduction sauce made of turmeric, paprika, cinnamon, clove, coriander and cumin. But the fire made it something brittle, something wonderful. There’s a Moroccan motif running through the menu – couscous with dried apricot and mint, smoked-paprika pork tenderloin, fried hummus.

Think of it as Newal Manacle’s twist on Bobby Flay’s palette of spices. After all, Manacle worked in Flay’s kitchens for 16 years. You expect sweetness in a restaurant called Apiary, but sometimes the sweetness gets out of hand.

Does a crab cake really need lime curd? Does fried calamari need lemon aioli that tastes like lemon meringue?

While sangria so often recalls a forgotten bottle of cheap wine and overripe fruit tossed into a pitcher, here it’s worth ordering. Especially the white sangria with peaches and mint.

If your favorite restaurant was also a street stand, what would it serve? (It’s a dinner game. Play along with me.) How about Per Se? Salmon tartare cones. Peter Luger? Porterhouse bacon club with Luger sauce. Pearl Oyster Bar? Already a street stand.

And Apiary? Spicy crusts on a stick and a sangria Slushee.

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