Amber Upper West relocated from Columbus Avenue to this dimly lit, intimate side street enclave in 2015. A wood-beamed ceiling and whitewashed walls are organically accented with well-illuminated hanging plants and a graphic, black and white tree painting. With a menu featuring a large selection of rolls, grilled dishes and sushi to be shared in either the conventional dining space or well-stocked bar, this side street gem offers more than just lovely decor.
Shun Lee West has been a staple on the West Side for over three decades, and I am pleased to say that I have been dining here for many of those years. Thankfully, not much has changed. The decor has been slightly altered, but the fiber glass monkeys still greet people in the bar, and the large dragons hang throughout the bi-level dining room. The food is consistently good and it is always hopping, especially on Christmas Eve, a tradition for my family and friends.
At the Jue Lan Club, two very compelling but completely unrelated stories lie within its foundation. The first story is that of the Jue Lan Society, a cluster of Chinese artists in the early 1930s who shared a “disaffection of conventionality and a devotion to the avant-garde. ” The name literally means “determination to create change, ” and it is in that spirit and in honor of those artists that chef Oscar Toro’s restaurant is called the Jue Lan Club. The second story concerns the place where this new, elegant restaurant is located: an eighteenth century Episcopal church that once housed the Limelight Disco, one of the hottest and most infamous nightclubs in New York since it was opened in November of 1983. First a disco and rock club, the Limelight became a popular venue for techno and goth music in the 1990s, when it also got the reputation as a drug dealing center. After numerous re-openings following police raids, the Limelight finally closed its doors in 2007. Since then, the entire space has been through several iterations, but as of 2016, the Jue Lan Club resides in the charming space with its entrance on 20th Street. The restaurant itself is, in one word, impressive. With its brick walls, artwork, and stained glass windows, it is not only a place to savor contemporary twists on Chinese cuisine, but also to get the party started. It has several rooms - including the Warhol Room, the 1932 Room, and the Alley - each with a different atmosphere, drink, and food selection to suit different moods and night plans.
I believe we saw one of the great wonders of the world when we were invited into the kitchen to see Philippe Chow work. The original chef for Mr. Chow's on East 57th Street for some twenty plus years and the man for whom the restaurant is named, Philippe’s speed and skill with a wok is unparalleled. After exiting the amazing heat and chaos roaring from Philippe’s metaphoric engine room, Steve Boxer, one of the very kind owners, exclaimed “And this is just lunch! ”The kitchen was the last stop on a tour of Philippe’s impressive restaurant, which includes several special places to indulge in the fine menu. There is a sleek, newly renovated bar, an expansive upstairs complete with its own bar, and a classic dining room with black banquettes and white tablecloths, known as the “Runway Room” for all the celebrities it attracts. One of the hidden highlights was the double wine cellar, which has tables and chairs set up between the rows of wine bottles, making for a more private, cozy, nocturnal setting. Guests sitting below ground can select their own music to play on the separate sound system using iPods or watch the flatscreen TV. At the end of our tour, Steve brought us to the “Skylight Room, ” which he says is a favorite spot for families, since it has a lot of natural light and has booth seating for kids to sprawl on, if necessary. It was clear to us that there is a place to sit for anyone, whether casual or classy, depending on one's mood. We sat down in the Skylight Room to enjoy some of Philippe's signature dishes and to continue our conversation with Steve. The Manhattan Sideways Team sampled the green prawns with carrots, mushrooms, and cashews, the vegetarian lettuce wrap with plum sauce, and the Beijing chicken with walnuts. Of the last dish, Steve said, “It’s like candy! ” and biting into one of the impossibly sweet walnuts, I agreed with him. He explained that there were healthy options, such as steamed vegetables and fish, and that they would be launching a light summer menu that he hoped would remain all year, including an eggplant dish and poached salmon. Ultimately, though, Steve believes that people do not come to Philippe to keep to their diet. He smirked and said, “Personally, I come here to sin. ”Steve sat and ate with us, and we were delighted to find that the owner of such a highly regarded restaurant was so down-to-earth and willing to chat. At one point he took out his phone to show us a picture of his dog in a baseball cap and had to flip past numerous photos of Rihanna’s party that she catered through Philippe the night before, perfectly demonstrating his friendly, casual nature. Steve is Manhattan born-and-bred, and so he knows exactly what New Yorkers want out of a restaurant. He has a lot of exciting plans for the Philippe empire: "I have closed quite a few locations recently, in an effort to regroup and reopen ten times better than before, " he explained. He continued, “I joined this venture looking for my own version of Cheers. I love it. ” He then mentioned that when he was finished showing off his east 64th Street location to us, he was headed to the Hamptons where he is about to open another Philippe. In addition to spending time with Steve and Chef Philippe, we met Kostas Paterakis, the floor manager and pastry chef. Due to his interesting combination of jobs (manning the floor and baking his treats), he often finds himself alone in the kitchen creating delectable desserts well into the night. He was not complaining, however, but declaring that he does his best work when left alone to experiment. The unexpected list of dazzling desserts on the Chinese menu include red velvet cake, apple cobbler, and selection of sorbets. "And everything is made in-house, " Steve proudly announced, and it all comes from what Steve calls “Kostas's little Betty Crocker Oven. ”We enjoyed observing the repartee between Kostas and Steve: After receiving a compliment from the owner, Kostas said, “I’d buy you a drink if it wasn’t your place. ” Later he said of Steve, “He listens to us as much as the customers, which is a big deal to the staff. He’s a great owner. ” Then he turned with an impish grin to Steve: “That’s what you told me to say, right? " Steve rebutted with, “I am blessed with the most loyal, trusting group of people. They treat this place like it’s their own. ”
“We are definitely a neighborhood restaurant — a place for New Yorkers to come and have a good meal. ” The staff at Shun Lee Palace have been working there for some twenty to thirty years. They have watched the restaurant evolve over time, but according to them, not much has changed since the beginning. It opened as Shun Lee Dynasty on 49th Street. When they moved to their current address in 1971, they changed their name. Michael Tong, the original owner, sold the business to a gentleman in 2005 who resides in China. For the most part, it is the dedicated staff that runs this establishment.
Alex Low climbed every rung on the restaurant ladder before becoming a partner at Peking Duck House. Upon leaving Malaysia, he began as a dishwasher in New Jersey, did food prep and delivery orders, and then worked his way into the dining room. “I wanted to learn how to cook, but they kicked me out of the kitchen, ” he joked. Yet he has no regrets, as he joined Peking Duck as a waiter in 1980 and was named a partial owner fifteen years later. He is now satisfied with his position at the front of the house. “You get to meet a lot of people. Customers have become friends, and everybody who comes in knows me very well. ”Alex runs Peking Duck with Wun Wu, who trained at a hotel restaurant in Hong Kong before coming to the States to open a business of his own — one in Chinatown and then a second in Midtown a year later. When asked about their most popular item, the answer is in the name: “Everyone remembers us for our Peking duck, first and foremost. ” However, Alex urges customers to sample other dishes that the restaurant has perfected, which draw inspiration from Beijing, Shanghai, and Szechuan. He laments that the art of Chinese cooking may soon be lost in the U. S., as there is a dearth of young chefs who are willing to come to America and be restaurateurs. As such, he believes it makes the places that have endured all the more precious.