Beneath the Spanish Benevolent Society lies La Nacional, one of Manhattan’s most authentic Spanish restaurants and the most easily accessible part of the society. Just by walking down the steps into the dimly lit basement lounge, we felt the bustle of 14th street quickly recede and we were transported across the ocean. La Nacional has the same relaxed, no frills atmosphere as most tapas bars in Spain. We gazed at the old photographs from the society’s earlier years on the walls and then had the option of sipping a drink at the bar, sampling some classic simple Spanish tapas such as tortilla de patatas, croquetas or chorizo, or dining on a full meal of paella. Perhaps the most authentic option, though, was to simply have a seat by the television to watch the fútbol game - it is always on. For visitors from Spain who want a taste of home, those of us pining for the Spanish travels of our past, or New Yorkers simply curious about a new culture, La Nacional is the place to go.
Pil Pil, named for a specific kind of sauce originating in the Basque region of Spain, fills an important role on the Upper East Side. It is a neighborhood watering hole, upscale and with enough ambience for a perfect date or friendly hangout, but still casual enough to lure locals back multiple times each week. I spoke with Nikola Romic, the owner and general manager, who explained that this is exactly the environment he wanted to create when he opened Pil Pil in 2010: a “homey atmosphere” where locals could have good food and wine. Nikola, originally from Serbia, spent a lot of time in Spain. He gained a true appreciation for the cuisine there and now owns vineyards in the Spanish countryside. Most of the wines at Pil Pil come from either his own grapes or family-owned vineyards. Nik told me that he personally travels to each of the vineyards to speak with the vintners and try the wine. Despite being so selective, Pil Pil features wine from over eighty different kinds of grapes. Considering the breadth of his experience, the property he owns, and his education, I was even more impressed with Nik when he revealed his age - when we met in early 2016, he was only twenty-seven! Pil Pil's home on 78th Street had previously been occupied by a sake bar where Nik actually worked. When it became obvious that the space would have to shutter, Nik turned it into a Spanish restaurant, decorating the interior with wine bottles and twining tree branches to make the intimate ambience for which Pil Pil is known. His initial plan was to serve traditional Spanish food, but he has added many American classics with key Spanish ingredients to the menu to appeal to his New York audience. For instance, there is a mac and cheese with chorizo and sliders made with manchego cheese. On the day we visited, Nik was offering a special mulled wine. He handed each member of the Manhattan Sideways team a glass, seasoned with citrus and cloves, which warmed us from the inside out. He showed us to the recently redesigned wine cellar before beckoning us into the kitchen where he casually added shrimp to a pan filled with butter and spices with one hand and stirred the pot of mulling wine with the other. Everything Nik and his sous chef Pedji did seemed effortless, like a well-timed culinary dance. He brought out a few dishes for us to try on the hightop tables, including the shrimp, called gambas al ajillo, which had just the right amount of spice and left enough sauce for the perfect buttery bread dip. We also tried the freshly baked flaky mushroom flatbread, seasoned with truffle oil. The last to arrive were the macaroni and cheese croquettes. These light balls of noodles and cheese, with a dash of paprika, were sensational. Nik is proud of what Pil Pil has become, both in terms of the food and the staff, many of whom speak both Spanish and English. There is no hierarchy of waiters and food runners. Casually dressed, they all work seamlessly together, emphasizing the relaxed atmosphere that Pil Pil has fostered. On Wednesdays, Nik occasionally brings in a Spanish acoustic guitar player from Barcelona…and sometimes Nik himself even plays.
In the heart of Spanish Harlem, known to locals as El Barrio, is the Puerto Rican tapas bar, La Fonda. “We put Puerto Rican food on the map, ” said James Gonzalez, who became a partner in 2017 after having spent “forever” as a loyal customer. “With my background, I should have been anything except for an entrepreneur, but here I am. ”Puerto Rican immigrant Jorge Ayala had spent decades living next door to George & Gina’s, a small eatery named after the husband and wife team that owned it. When the couple decided to sell, Jorge worked out a deal to take over the lease and create a “restaurant of the people” that celebrated the Latinx heritage that was so meaningful to him and other transplants in the neighborhood. Fittingly, La Fonda’s dishes are “Nuyorican fusion, ” melding elements from the Boricua, Spanish, African, and indigenous Taíno cultures. “Our food is all made the way a grandma would make it, but it’s not just the basic rice and beans that she would put on the table. ” Yes, La Fonda may make its sofrito fresh every day, and it is of course known for its chicharrón and slow-roasted pernil, but these hearty Latin staples take on an elegant new life under James and Jorge’s direction.
The wine list scrawled on the large chalkboard, the exposed wine cellar covering two floors, and the marble bar make Ardesia a beautiful place to while away the post-work hours. Damon, Ardesia's manager, says that while the place is sophisticated, "we also want people to feel comfortable, almost like they are in their living room. " This atmosphere has allowed the bar to garner a group of loyal regulars, including local artists and actors and others who work and live in the neighborhood. The rotating wine list ensures they are never bored and, while the main attraction is certainly the broad selection of wines, Ardesia also has a solid menu of small plates.
Soft blues music greeted me as I entered this remarkable hidden gem on West 10th Street. I found the current New York Times hanging on a rack and a case filled with bags and tins of tea. Before settling into a cozy corner with Tom, the photographer from Manhattan Sideways, I met the extraordinary couple who own the store, ready to guide me through a tea adventure. I immediately thought to myself, this might be the best kept secret in the Village, but I am sure it will not be for long. Federico Ribeiro and Elena Liao met at Highlands, just a short distance away, in 2009 while both were having a drink at the bar. Elena already had a deep passion for Taiwanese tea and wanted to bring the product, along with her knowledge, to Manhattan. Elena moved to the States from Taiwan when she was thirteen but she loves returning "home, " and has a good connection with the farmers. "I drank tea all my life; it is the national beverage in Taiwan. " Whenever her parents had company, tea was served. Federico enjoyed cooking; he had worked in several top restaurants, including Per Se, but was eager to learn about the history of oolong tea. Thus, the two began traveling together, visiting Elena's parents in Taiwan and spending time with tea farmers. With their strong education and sense of aesthetics, the two decided to open their own charming space. Elena had a tea company for four years prior to opening Te. She had been selling to restaurants, attempting to offer a more intensive program, but she recognized that she was not reaching enough of an audience. She had increasingly felt that in the States, there was a great awareness and appreciation for coffee and wine, but not so much for tea. She became determined to change this by giving people a more "sensitive experience. " The city lacked places to find oolong tea. "There was a real void, and in a city where you can find just about anything, I felt that one should also be able to find my tea. " In 2016, the couple opened their magical shop with a focus on Taiwanese tea. Te has about twenty different types of Taiwanese tea. They all come from the same plant, but differences in processing result in distinct categories: oolong, black, green, macha or white tea. The level of oxidation determines the tea's color and how strong it will be. Elena told me that she chose to focus solely on the tea from her homeland - "otherwise it would become overwhelming. " She went on to share that she "read and read and read - I educated myself. " By meeting with the farmers, however, and returning every year in May (the harvest season), she is able to taste the leaves as they are first picked and can control what they are receiving back in Manhattan. "I am always learning so that I can be certain that I am providing my customers with the best possible product. "Everything about Te is well thought out and Elena and Federico work quietly and professionally to be sure that each patron has the exact experience that fits his or her needs. When we sat down and ordered a pot of tea, we were told that whenever we needed more hot water, we simply had to tilt the cover to the side, and that would signal that we needed our pot filled. There was no need to disrupt our conversation. For the customer who wants to settle in at one of the few small tables and work undisturbed on their computer, they are welcome, as is the person who would like to sit and have an elaborate tasting with Elena. For Tom and me, we were eager to hear the couple's stories and to become a bit more educated about tea. Elena sat down and happily described every aspect of the world of tea, clearly demonstrating her passion and knowledge. Presenting us with a small soft leather book that contained the tea menu, Elena flipped through the pages, describing some of her favorites. When I spoke with them, Federico and Elena had only been open for a couple months, and they were very pleased to be able to say that they already had regulars. "People love to come in and sit down and chat about tea. " I do not think that Elena could ask for anything better than that. Although they feel that they are constantly trying to "reinvent" themselves, depending on the needs and desires of their audience, I believe that Elena and Federico have already found a fantastic formula. Oh, but I did not mention the food! The menu is tiny, as Federico prepares each dish by hand, but the few items could not be any more perfect. I had a simple red leaf salad with a light olive oil dressing, toasted almonds and freshly grated parmesan. I savored every bite. Tom had never tasted anything quite like what he ordered - Tortilla de Patata. Federico said that it was just potatoes, onions and egg. I chimed in, saying, "kind of like a quiche without the crust, " but Tom insisted that it was nothing of the sort. All he could mutter was "out of this world. " Even the sourdough Portuguese bread served alongside my salad was outstanding, but that, we learned, is because Federico makes it himself.
Candles flicker from every corner casting a glow over the dark wood bar and tables at Cello, while softly illuminating the bottles of wine and liquor on display. Modernity intrudes in the form of a small TV mounted in one corner, but, otherwise, the atmosphere is quiet and rustic enough that it is easy to forget one is still in Manhattan. Tom, a manager and part-owner of Cello for five years, describes the bar as an "easy-going place" with a focus on getting people to try new wines. Patrons are encouraged to sample wines before they make a decision, and Tom stressed that there is no price incentive to buy a bottle rather than a glass. He went on to say that the bartenders pour four glasses per bottle - "you're getting a really full glass, " Tom added. Though they will sometimes keep a specific bottle in reserve for regulars who request it, Cello stocks a rotating collection of wines from "The Old World and New World" to keep their selection varied. One wine for sale when we visited came from a volcano caldera in the Canary Islands. Their list is meant to cater to wine aficionados and novices alike. Tom confidently declared, "We'll definitely be able to find something you like. " Cello also offers a well-stocked bar and a modest range of beer choices for non-oenophiles, as well as a pizza and tapas menu featuring meats and cheeses imported from France, Italy and Holland. Tom described the food as "very good, very well thought-out" with wine pairing opportunities in mind. There are a lot of "first dates" that stop by Cello, but otherwise, Tom characterized the clientele as a mix of businesspeople, local business owners and residents of the neighborhood and, simply, people "chilling out" late at night.
At Ladybird, vegetables take center stage. According to Devante Melton, marketing director of DeRossi Global, Ladybird's parent company, “Instead of creating meat substitutes or serving dishes that propel that same kind of addiction to meat, we decided to create a vegetable bar that would be a sexy alternative without any of that pretense or exclusivity, ” Since 2016, Ravi DeRossi has been on a mission to turn his restaurants vegan - and change the way we think about meat. “New Yorkers are very, very dedicated to meat as a necessity, ” says Devante. “We go day-to-day in this kind of routine without actually understanding our food systems - what’s available, what’s produced locally. In doing so, we condition ourselves to believe that these things are necessary, but we don’t feel any need to lower our carbon footprint or create any environmental changes for us as a people. One way to do that is to go vegan. ”Ladybird’s aesthetic is a cross between one's rich great-aunt’s living room and a trendy bar. Gold-framed mirrors adorn the marble-patterned walls, while plants dangle from the ceiling. Customers sit in green velvet booths or at the mirrored bar and drink wine-based cocktails served in crystal punch bowls. The food evokes the same sort of airy opulence as the décor. Manhattan Sideways sat down to sample a variety of items from the menu: Beginning with The Reunion Ibis cocktail - In keeping with the bar’s theme, the drinks are named after birds - followed by some of the restaurants most favorite dishes: Three types of toast (avocado, cauliflower, and mushroom and onion), kale salad, baby corn, and melt-in-your-mouth fried eggplant. The star of the show was a beet and avocado ceviche, a dish that made us wonder why anyone ever bothered making ceviche with fish. That is, in the end, the goal: to engineer a new sort of culinary literacy, where one's taste buds are far too occupied to even consider missing meat.
Today, NoMad – short for North of Madison Square Park – is one of Manhattan’s hottest neighborhoods, but Moku, co-owner of Izakaya NoMad, could not have foreseen that when location-scouting for his New York variation of a classic Japanese izakaya (a casual bar serving small plates that pair well with alcohol). Having owned an izakaya in Korea Town, Moku wanted to bring Japanese food to a region where it was sparse. Averi, a member of the Manhattan Sideways team, had an exceptional experience at Izakaya NoMad. Upon her arrival, she was greeted warmly by Moku and his team and quickly shown around the restaurant before the dinner crowd poured in. They started at the front of the house, where Moku pointed out the first section of a three-part custom mural painted by an illustrator from the School for Visual Arts, depicting NoMad infused with elements of Japanese pop culture like Godzilla and Astro Boy. From there, they moved into a long, narrow hall lined with cozy geometric booths, a long bar and open kitchen. Moku admitted that it would have been easier to have the kitchen stationed in the rear like most eateries, but he and co-founder Jay desired to be transparent about their high quality ingredients and also wanted guests to be able to interact with their culinarily well-versed yakitori chef (who coincidentally, bares the nickname Godzilla). Passing by the bar, Averi and her hosts drifted to the back of the dining room, where on an elevated platform, reconfigurable chairs rested under cubed light fixtures. Behind them, modern counters hid in an exposed brick cove with a graffiti reptilian tail tagged on the wall. Back at the front, Averi took a seat at a grand communal table wrapped in cool light from the descending sun and decorative paper lanterns overhead. Sliding doors reminiscent of shōji separate the area from the restaurant upon request, creating an ideal space for company dinners and birthday parties. Moku noted that Izakaya Nomad's design established five “unique spaces… like a maze. ” The bar was intimate and mature, the tables on the platform familial and familiar, the urban grotto youthful and hip, and the front room airy and conversation invoking. Once settled, Moku shared the novel-like menu with Averi, consisting of yakitori, sashimi, sushi, tataki, tempura, hot pots, wine, beer, and sake with informative descriptions for those who may be unfamiliar with Japanese cuisine. A waiter then brought three varieties of sake, and Moku gave Averi a brief lesson in the fermented rice alcohol. She learned that the intensity of flavor stems from how much the outer layer of each grain of rice is stripped away. For example, the harder junmai sake polishes less of the grain – only about thirty percent - so it had a strong rice taste, which Moku claims is popular with young people these days. The junmai ginjo sake takes away about forty percent of the grain, resulting in a subtle sweetness, while the junmai daiginjo removes fifty percent, leaving a “smooth” creamy texture and “less hangover. ” The junmai daiginjo was Averi's favorite of the three, crisp and refreshing with just enough punch. Moku assured her that if sake is not a guest’s "cup of tea, " an impressive list of both beer and wine are available. After drinks, Moku reviewed the custom tasting menu that had been prepared for Averi's visit. With lobster tail, soft fried tofu, sizzling butamoyasi (bacon, beansprouts onions, and chives), uni (sea urchin), and sushi, the menu was reflective of the izakaya’s overall project: to apply the best parts of the Japanese izakaya experience to a “New York market. ” In fact, Izakaya NoMad was the first izakaya around to call themselves a Japanese gastropub. For this reason, the fare served at NoMad is not exactly conventional, as it includes items like sushi and ramen to meet the demand of its clientele. Additionally, the restaurant finds creative ways to incorporate less common snacks like chicken gizzard, battered, fried, and seasoned to be accessible to the average New Yorker. When the colorful, steaming plates began to arrive at the table, it seemed like they would never stop. What a feast. The enoki mushrooms wrapped in smoked bacon, grilled chicken skewers, and the fatty tuna sushi were all delightful; though the sweet “rocket tsukune” (free range chicken meatball), juicy beef short rib yakitori, and the smoky hamachi tataki (seared yellow tail) really stole the show. Averi was surprised when Moku revealed that many of the elements do not require intense seasoning: at izakaya NoMad, they “don’t overdo things” and like to let the fresh ingredients speak for themselves. Despite the quantity of dishes, nothing was repetitive. Each item showcased its own distinct medley of delicious flavors. Incredibly humble and hospitable, Moku and Jay are adamant about focusing on the food, not themselves. While they aim to rival the product of a five-star celebrity establishment, they seek to leave pretention behind, insisting they would never judge customers for how they use chopsticks or eat sushi. “As long as you enjoy, that’s the main point, ” said Moku, “that’s our philosophy. ” Providing “an alternative to any traditional beer experience in Manhattan” with an “upscale look but casual environment, ” Izakaya NoMad has set out to be a safe, social gathering place where food, company, and alcohol can all be enjoyed without inhibition. From Averi's experience, we can verify that is certainly the case.