Alessandra and Mario De Benedetti had never been in the restaurant business. She was a law professor and he was in finance - both living in Italy. When a passion burns inside you, however, and a desire to live in NYC is so strong, why not change careers and pursue your dream? This is exactly what the dynamic duo chose to do. Working alongside Elizabeth Roberts, architect extraordinaire, the team created a space built for dramatic floral arrangements and an enchanting atmosphere for dining. Alessandra combined her love of flowers by integrating them into the restaurant's splendid cocktails, specialty dishes and magnificent displays. In 2019, their dream finally became a reality as they opened the doors of Il Florista on West 26th Street.
Merakia occupies the space that housed Kat & Theo from 2015-2017 - and while the restaurant maintains the same ownership as before, it also has a different mission. The modern Greek steakhouse prides itself on its meats and classic seafood items, while maintaining a classy, hip atmosphere in its cavernous space on 21st Street. “We built a new team… and a new vision, ” managing partner James Paloumbis shared with the Manhattan Sideways team when he spoke of the switch from Kat & Theo. He then went on to highlight Merakia’s differences from other Greek restaurants. “It’s not white and blue like every other place in New York City. Our menu is not the copy paste of any other place. ” The menu is heavy on steaks and seafood, boasting their signature lamb on the spit ("the only restaurant in the city to do so") while, surprisingly, offering some robust meat-free options as well. “Everything is farm to table, we use fresh ingredients, [and] we make everything from scratch on a daily basis. ” James told us that part of his mission is to bring back the adventure of going out to eat, a phenomenon he has noticed declining over the years. “People don’t like to go out anymore just to eat. You can eat at home, you can eat down the street, you can order your meal online. But to get an experience of nice service, some nice flavors, nice music, nice drinks - it’s worth your while to go out again. ” Husband and wife team behind Kat & Theo - Renee and Andreas Typaldos - seem to have orchestrated a smooth transition from their previous restaurant. As their past executive chef, Paras Shah, believed, "there should be a movie written about the couple's romantic backstory and that he “couldn’t have worked for better folks. ” Andy is originally from Greece, and the restaurant was named after his parents, Katerina and Theodosios. Andy came to New York on a scholarship from Columbia and met Renee, who is from the Bronx. He took her out on a first date “with holes in his shoes and with no winter jacket, ” according to Renee. She added, “The romantic, poetic way people get together. ” Today, they are paying homage to Andy's Greek heritage and according to James, “People have to trust their stomachs and their palates with a restaurant, so that’s what we’re trying to do here. Trust us - our food is fresh, our food is made with care, and we love what we do. ”
Fig & Olive is Mediterranean-inspired dining in its most exquisite form. On my first visit to this location, I was drawn in by the collection of wine and olive oil bottles lining the walls and the chic rustic decor that feels reminiscent of eating in the Italian countryside. Never has there been a time when I have dined at one of the several Fig & Olives in Manhattan, that I did not have an excellent experience. I have feasted on fresh ingredients assembled into delectable creations. I was thrilled to take the Manhattan Sideways team here for lunch one day where they raved over the selection of crostini and devoured the mouthfuls of perfectly paired ingredients – goat cheese and caramelized onion, for example – heaped onto small squares of fresh bread. Another favorite that I introduced them to was the zucchini carpaccio served with lemon and olive oil. We accompanied the meal with a beautifully presented Cucumber Cosmos and Rossellinis, selected from the extensive cocktail menu.
After having eaten at Barbes, I was eager to check out Omar Balouma's other restaurant. Stopping to notice the beautiful, ornately carved front door, we learned that it was shipped directly from Morocco, and functions as a literal and figurative portal to North Africa. Inside, a vague smell of hookah smoke hangs in the air amidst beautifully crafted walls done in a soft pastel-hued Venetian plaster. The front of the restaurant is for dining where the menu offers smaller Mediterranean-style plates flavored with Moroccan spices. The back hookah room might be the real star. Benches line the large square room, along with colorful seat cushions while tapestry-esque sheets hang overhead. Saturday nights come alive with belly dancers and music is played by Rachid Halibal, a native of Morocco.
Since its inception, Cafe Mogador has become a beloved East Village institution. In fact, it gained such a devoted following from both New York locals and celebrities that it later opened a second location in Williamsburg. The two successful restaurants, which specialize in inventive Moroccan-inspired dishes, owe their fame to the family that has continued to run both cafes. Cafe Mogador was founded by Rivka Orlin, who was born in the Moroccan city of Mogador that has since been re-named Essaouira. Though she and her family later emigrated to Israel, Rivka fostered a passion for both cuisines as she spent her childhood cooking alongside her mother. When Rivka and her brother moved to New York, there was no question that they would dedicate their new business to celebrating their heritage. The cafe is now known for Moroccan classics such as succulent braised tagines, warm homemade pitas, and a variety of dips, as well as its unexpected fusions with other cuisines, from Middle Eastern Eggs Benedict to duck confit.
A line out the door at lunchtime certainly caught my attention. When I inquired, I was told that the food is fresh, the sandwiches are terrific, and that their Mediterranean menu is worth the wait. Thus, the Manhattan Sideways team queued up along side everyone else, as who would not trust the word on the street? Meeting the two animated Israeli owners, David and Yariv, was an added bonus, as we secured one of the few tables to sit and eat our freshly made dishes. We eagerly delved into the bowl of hummus, the hot pressed mozzarella sandwich and the strips of zucchini with lemon, olive oil and toasted almonds. We left with a full understanding of why people are willing to stand on line. Although, we also learned that Picnic Basket is expanding their kitchen in an effort to accommodate more people at a faster pace.
The Arabic name of this Mediterranean cafe translates to welcome and peace, and its colorful, wordly decor effectively brings this atmosphere to life. Its owner, Bassam Omary, left his home of Damascus in the 1980s and came to New York, where he worked at his cousin’s Greenwich Avenue Syrian restaurant. When his relative was ready to hand over the reins, Bassam bought the business with his wife, Joan, and relocated to 13th Street. “We always had a good feeling about this place, ” Joan explained. The space is adorned with pillows, pictures, and tapestries from Syria and mosaic-patterned Moroccan tables. A small, private dining area allows groups to experience the Middle Eastern custom of sitting on cushions on the floor. Loyal patrons visit time and again for the succulent tagines, grilled kebabs, and what Joan says is the undisputed customer favorite: uzis — crispy phyllo dough stuffed with rice, raisins, and the protein of one’s choice. As the only chef, Bassam is constantly experimenting, returning to the traditional dishes his mother taught him how to prepare while freely exploring the spices, ingredients, and flavors he is passionate about.
The massive, open interior, high ceilings, white columns, and rows of long, pillow-strewn banquettes at this corner Mediterranean restaurant pay extensive, dramatic homage to what is really a tiny, unremarkable fish found in Greece. Since the restaurant opened in 2005, the barbounia has been elevated to what is most likely unprecedented fame. The sardine, for example, has yet to be honored with a white-feathered chandelier and twenty-foot long, soft cream-colored curtains. The airy space, which also comprises a large, inviting bar, semi-outdoor seating on 20th Street, and an open kitchen, is consistently packed and filled with raucous, lively conversation. Barbounia is certainly a scene worth partaking in, both socially and with its mostly Greek cuisine, especially the fresh, simply prepared fish and seafood. They also offer amazing bread and small pizzas and pasta.
A totally different experience awaited me at Alta from down the block at Piadina, but both were wonderful. The energy level at Alta was high from the moment I walked through the door. There are two floors in which to dine, with the upstairs decibel level a bit more comfortable. The menu is all about small plates, and wow are there a lot of choices. There is definitely something here to please anyone’s palette. It took myself and company quite some time just to peruse the menu and the very extensive wine list. Just a quick sampler of what we tasted and devoured quickly: the fried goat cheese balls in lavender infused honey came four on a skewer and were excellent; the lamb meatballs had spiced butternut squash foam, toasted sesame seeds and lebne, and were amazing; the pulled pork empanadas came with a tasty sweet and spicy cilantro dipping sauce; the bruschetta of spinach and mascarpone had dried Turkish figs, pine nuts, parmesan and balsamic was good, but gone too quickly; the crispy brussels sprouts with Fuji apples, crème fraiche and pistachio nuts was a favorite of mine. When everyone decided that we still could eat a bit more, the waiter recommended the house-made pizza with porcini cream, fontina, crimini mushrooms, fried garlic and aleppo (pepper). Though we had no room for dessert, we assured one another that we would try it out one day soon.
Sopra, located above Amali and owned by the same restaurant group, is a communal dining concept that creates the feeling of an upscale dinner party. In this elegant, high-ceilinged former apartment, up to twenty people can sit at a long table next to the open kitchen and eat a family-style meal. It allows Rachel Goulet, the chef for both Amali and Sopra, to serve up dishes that are impractical to prepare in single portions for a traditional restaurant. What has quickly become most popular are the porchetta (a classic Italian roast pig) and the Roman lamb, a recipe typically made during the Easter season using the whole animal. Sopra not only provides an unconventional style of dining where strangers are encouraged to socialize both with each other and with the chef, but it also provides an education in sustainable food. The meals served at Sopra are "super local and hyper-seasonal, " Steve Breslawski, the events coordinator for both restaurants, explained. Guests receive an interactive and informative lesson in how food can taste if you pay attention to what is available at different times of the year. The patrons that dine at Sopra are often more adventurous eaters, Steve said, than those who frequent Amali - they are eager to taste the unusual meats that are presented, such as wild boar, beef heart and sweet meats. (Note that vegetarians are welcome to order from Amali's menu if Sopra's offerings are too carnivorous)Sopra is open to the public Wednesday through Saturday, but it is also available for private events. Large rolling bars separate the space from the "Fireplace Room, " a cozy smaller area that can be rented out separately or as part of Sopra. As I was admiring the photographs that line Sopra's walls, Steve told me that they are pictures of the staff's family, which indeed add to the warmth and comfort of this venue.
The stretch between Fifth and Sixth Avenues on 44th has something fascinating, historic and delicious at almost every address. Stepping inside Kellari, however, allowed me to remove myself from the fray for a little while, as I immediately felt transplanted into a Mediterranean setting. From the charming people who greeted me at the door to the far back of the restaurant, Kellari was an exquisite experience. There are high ceilings, ethereal drapes, an abundance of wood, foliage, and candles hanging in chandelier-style candelabras all adding to the je ne sais quoi of the scene. But what is a restaurant without good food? The manager we spoke with, Dimitrios, walked us to the middle of the restaurant where there is an impressive display of fresh fish laid out across a bed of crushed ice for diners to select. The array of fish changes on a daily basis, depending on what is happening in the market, and priced accordingly. A fish can be small enough for one person to enjoy, or at times there are large fish able to serve a party of fifteen. Organic salmon is served simply on a disc of beets with steamed wild grains, alongside potatoes and finished off with a dollop of saffron yogurt. Baked lemon sole came with a cauliflower puree and mixed grilled peppers. The whole grilled branzino was seasoned with just a bit of olive oil, lemon and fresh herbs, thrown on the grill and cooked to perfection, each step visible from the dining area through to the open kitchen. While we waited for Chef Gregory to prepare these few dishes for us to photograph, I observed the endless international business crowd coming in for lunch. By the time we left, the entire restaurant was filled with sophisticated patrons. Kellari means "wine cellar" in Greek, and they live up to the name, with wines stocked like a mosaic piece in the back of the restaurant. There are over 450 varieties carried here, half of which are Greek. The vibes are friendly, the food delicious, and we would be remiss not to mention the well-documented health benefits of a Mediterranean diet!