Sojourn calls itself the Upper East Side’s “sexiest restaurant,” and it is hard to argue: the color scheme, in coppers browns and reds, gives the restaurant a warm, intimate feeling. The name, which means “a temporary stay,” hints at the fact that visitors can expect a full dining experience.
Olivia, a member of the Manhattan Sideways team, was excited to return to Sojourn. She and her family had discovered the restaurant, tucked behind a residential-looking doorway, right before Thanksgiving and had visited two more times by the New Year. Along with the friendly staff, warm ambience, and delectable, seasonal food, what makes Sojourn stand out is its approach to courses: all menu items can be ordered as sharable tapas, with just the right number for the table.
For example, when Olivia went with a group of seven family members and ordered the chorizo croquettes, the waiter said he would bring out two orders at three to a plate...plus one extra. Using this innovative way of ordering, each party can essentially create their own tasting menu. As for beverages, the cocktail menu is sophisticated and diverse. The restaurant not only has a large selection of wine, but also keeps some of their grapes in barrels rather than bottles, a more environmentally friendly method of storing and serving it. Among the many menu items that Olivia’s family tasted were the zesty arugula salad, crispy fish tacos, and Kobe beef sliders. Despite being thoroughly full, they made sure to have enough room for the warm, fluffy churros served with Mexican chocolate dipping sauce.
We spoke to Johnny Musovic, who owns Sojourn with his father, Sami. They originally opened a Mexican restaurant called Santa Fe in the same location, but discovered that the neighborhood did not have a strong need for casual Mexican food. Instead, the father and son duo reopened with a higher-end concept which has been wholly embraced. Johnny proudly told me that his father is no newcomer to the restaurant world, having been the Head Maitre D’ at Sparks Steakhouse and Mr. Chow’s. He also has two other restaurants nearby. As for Johnny himself, he told me “In this industry, you can’t be afraid to get your hands dirty,” referencing his time spent as everything from dishwasher to delivery boy to co-owner. He is clearly very proud of Sojourn for a variety of reasons, beginning with the food. “Most chefs are into fresh, local ingredients, but these chefs really are.” He is also happy to have cultivated a chic, relaxing space, which includes live music on Monday and Tuesday evenings.
Though he proclaims that the Upper East Side is his favorite part of the city, Johnny’s dream is to open up a Sojourn in Midtown one day. Until then, his goal is to integrate his bar crowd and his dining crowd. One night, he held a two hour open bar as his way of “giving back” to the neighborhood. Along with drinks, he offered his customers a series of hors d’oeuvres. He was surprised by how many of his bar regulars approached him and said, “I didn’t realize you had such great food!”
Ed and his wife Heidi know that being small has its advantages and disadvantages. Their reputation has been growing, which is wonderful, but on many evenings this can also mean up to an hour wait for people hoping to get into the tiny restaurant. Based on its popularity, there is no doubt that the cozy eatery has filled a void uptown. Unlike the East Village, for instance, where every nook and cranny is filled with enticing bars and restaurants, Heidi’s House is the only one of its kind in the immediate area. Ed emphasized that he would not want it any other way - he loves being “part of the fabric of the neighborhood” and interacting with the steady, loyal crowd. Ed and Heidi are both former teachers. The full name of the restaurant is “Heidi’s House by the Side of the Road, ” a reference to a poem of the same name by Sam Walter Foss. While Heidi is presently studying for a masters degree, Ed has been taking on more of the responsibilities in running the restaurant, though Heidi is still the master of the wine list, which has a wide, interesting selection and rotates with the seasons. Ed is the beer man and has steered away from draught, preferring craft and bottled beers. He is also in charge of the space. He put his skills as a former carpenter to use in building the restaurant, finding salvaged wood from the building itself, some of which is over 100 years old. Ed brought out a couple signature dishes for the Manhattan Sideways team to photograph. Cipriano and his sous-chef Heleo Aviles whipped up a plate of bruschetta as well as the seared sirloin steak special, served with fingerling potatoes, red pepper puree, and fresh horseradish sauce. Though it was early, the small space was already bustling, and bartender Rosendo Hernandez had his work cut out for him. When Ed and Heidi first began planning their restaurant, they wanted to create a place where they, themselves, would like to go. They designed an intimate, TV-free zone with great jazz and good food where customers could meet and enjoy a conversation while dining on an eclectic mix of comfort food. For the latter, they found Cipriano Pita, who has been with Heidi and Ed since they first opened Heidi’s House in 2010. Originally from Puebla, Mexico, he is a “natural born cook, ” smart and intuitive. Because of the limited space in Cipriano's "workshop, " Ed said that the produce, meat, and fish are delivered daily. "We have nowhere to store it, so it has to be fresh. " Everything is hands-on, without any corporate elements. The atmosphere is similarly guided by what Ed and Heidi want to see in their space. They brought decorations from home, including framed post cards, quirky sculptures, and a Nepalese window frame. There are board games at the front of the restaurant including checkers, chess, Scrabble, dominoes, and Trivial Pursuit. I was struck by a poem on the wall behind the bar written by a child who came to dine with her family, detailing her experience at Heidi’s. “Everyone wants to be around things that they like, ” Ed pointed out. It was refreshing to experience a place where every detail is decided by what the owners like, not what they assume the customers prefers - in the end, it appears that they are one in the same.
EJ's Luncheonette has mastered the art of American comfort food... and beyond. This was the go-to spot for my kids in the morning, whenever they spent time with us in our East 73rd Street apartment. The eatery churns out perfectly toasted bagels, omelets, homefries, French toast and pancakes. When in the mood, my family members also appreciated their greasy hamburgers (meant in the most loving way), and my husband was a huge fan of the milkshakes.... while I always appreciated their healthy, vegetarian choices. Sadly, I now live on the Upper West Side, so we do not get here as often, but visiting EJ's with the Manhattan Sideways crew was a real treat. On one visit we met Eric J. Levine, also known as EJ. Despite the fact that his initials are “EJ, ” the restaurant name is also a combination of his plus that of his partner, Jay Silver. While sitting at the counter, he talked about his background, which is also partly his father’s story. Eric explained that his father wanted to open a restaurant/bar in his later life “like every other Jewish businessman with a mid-life crisis. ” Unlike many other men, however, he went through with it. He left his job in the garment district and fell into the restaurant business at fifty-five years old with Dock’s Oyster Bar and Seafood Grill. Growing up, Eric worked in various restaurants, but when he reached adulthood, he tested out a series of different paths. He dropped out of college and became a stockbroker for four years, during which time he “worked 100 hour weeks. ” He then went back to college at NYU. When he dropped out, he told me, “The only business I knew was the restaurant business. ” He opened EJ’s on the Upper West Side in 1990 and became one of the pioneers in resurrecting Amsterdam Avenue. “We were busy day one, ” he said, and the business kept accelerating from there until they sadly closed in 2013 after the lease expired. Although the luncheonette appears to come straight out of the 1950's, Eric opened his second EJ's on the East Side in 1991. His team was comprised of people he had met while spending time at Dock’s. Jay, for example, was the chef at Dock’s and their other partner, Robert Eby, was the General Manager. Eric admitted, “My father was always involved by extension. ” Eric was also inspired by his father, who helped open the restaurant Carmine’s and Angelo & Maxie's Steakhouse. “That’s the whole tree of life, ” Eric said with a smile, reflecting on the two intertwined careers. Eric has branched out to other restaurants throughout the years. He and his partner started a consulting company and owned a few pizzerias that he has since sold. EJ’s on East 73rd, however, is at the core of everything he does. “I guess this is my baby, ” Eric admitted. He is proud to be an independent business, despite how difficult it is. “Being the mom and pop guy... it’s a different environment, ” he said soberly. This is especially the case for a breakfast, lunch, and dinner restaurant. “You always have to be on your toes, ” Eric stated. “People gotta eat! ” He is open every single day of the year. He is often busiest on holidays including Thanksgiving and Christmas, since EJ’s is “the only game in town. ” Eric confessed, however, that he enjoys being at EJ's on the holidays. “It’s the best day to work – people are in great moods. ”EJ’s also has a healthy delivery and catering business, though Eric much prefers it when people come in to eat. He also admitted that while EJ’s is lauded for its breakfast, he would like more people to know about his dinner specials. “All our food’s home cooking, ” he said proudly, adding that EJ’s is the closest thing the Upper East Side has to a casual seafood restaurant – it is one of the few places where a customer can get a fresh piece of fish for $20. EJ's menu continues to evolve in an effort to suit people’s taste. Eric sited an example of having recently removed the egg cream from the menu, since no one was ordering it anymore. He has now added a power smoothie with flax seed and greek yogurt. The cooking staff presented us with their latest endeavor - gluten-free pancakes, along with their classic spaghetti and meatballs. “There’s a lot of love and attention put into it... We make food to make people happy. ” When I questioned Eric about his continued passion for running the restaurant, he reigned in the emotion like a true New Yorker and quipped, “It’s better than being in a dentist’s office! ”
The inside of Nice Matin is like a bright carnival ground with three central pillars decorated with lights, wide spaces between tables, and colorful art on the walls. Above the doorway, there is an arrangement of baskets and fruit with handwritten signs and prices in euros, emulating European markets. At any hour of the day or evening, the restaurant is filled with people both from the surrounding neighborhood as well as from the Lucerne, the connecting hotel. The chef and owner of Nice Matin is Andy D'Amico, who has since gone on to develop other restaurants around the city, including 5 Napkin Burger. After attending the Culinary Institute of America, Andy worked at Parker House in Boston and at the Sign of the Dove on the Upper East Side, where he was promoted to head chef. In 2003, he partnered with Simon Oren to open Nice Matin, a venture that earned him the title of "Best Chef 2003" from New York Magazine. I met with Danny, the General Manager, who shared their elaborate cocktail list that had classics with a twist. He brought out a San Tropez, Nice Matin's take on the mojito. It had summery passion fruit foam that complemented the mint and dark rum. The restaurant has seasonal cocktails, such as hot toddies in the winter and Campari cocktails in the spring. My favorite time to dine at Nice Matin, however, is on a warm weekend morning when their elaborate brunch menu is offered, and I can sit outside.
Shaaray Tefila has a very special place in my heart. For well over twenty years, beginning in the early 1970's, this was a home away from home for my grandparents. Reaching 79th Street and having the opportunity to write about this synagogue has brought tears to my eyes again and again. Rabbi Tattelbaum played an important role not only in my grandparent's lives, but in mine as well, when I was a young, impressionable teenager. It was Chip Schrager, the Communications Coordinator for the temple in 2015, who kindly guided the Manhattan Sideways team through the space, beginning with the main sanctuary. The room is expansive, seating 400 people downstairs and 200 in the balcony, and Chip was proud to say that it was filled to the rafters during the recent Hanukkah services. Something that I did not know was that the building used to be a movie theater until the temple took over in 1958. The old projector room is now used as an office for the parenting programs. Founded in 1845 as a strict Orthodox temple, Shaaray Tefila has shifted locations throughout the city, becoming Reform along the way. Stepping into the chapel, where smaller services are held, I saw bold stained glass ornaments on one side of the room with the names and symbols of characters from Jewish lore. In the meeting room nearby, well-polished Judaic pieces, along with artifacts dating back to the temple's founding were displayed. In addition, we took note of photographs of the old temple on West 82nd Street, the Seal of the Congregation, and even the trowel that the rabbi used to lay the cornerstone of the Temple. Leaving the room, Chip gestured to photographs of six men who were senior rabbis at Temple Shaaray Tefila. The temple has a strong children's program, including a nursery school, kindergarten, and religious school that extends through high school. We appreciated getting to observe the room used for art class. A giant paint pallet decorated the wall and colorful supplies lined the room. We then ventured up to the roof where the playground is located, surrounded by a fence that still allowed for a beautiful view of the winter sunset. It was here that Chip continued to speak of the various programs offered to every age group, including senior citizens. This is what my grandparents took advantage of so many years ago, and it warmed my heart to know that people are still participating in the various classes that Shaaray Tefila has to offer. As Chip beautifully stated, "Whatever your Jewish journey is, we want to be a part of it. "
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.
Remy, the Belgian gentleman behind the bar, described his time at B Cafe as a remarkable experience. He came to the States and was having a difficult time finding a job, but two days before his visa was to run out in 2006, he happened upon Shkel, who had recently opened a restaurant on East 75th Street. Apparently, the two men hit it off, and Shkel decided to sponsor Remy. Over the past nine years, Remy has been able to watch "this little restaurant grow up. " Having arrived on the scene only six weeks after its opening, he appreciated working for a company where he could "find the consequences" of his involvement. Remy went on to say that he became a member of a team that has had very little turnover. Remy continued, "Customers feel the consistency. " Being on a side street, they must work that much harder to keep their guests coming back. He acknowledged that everything good takes time, but that at this point, he feels that B Cafe has earned the approval of its neighbors. Dropping in on a Thursday evening around 7: 00pm, I can attest to the fact that this is a popular spot on the Upper East Side. We were the fortunate ones who got to sit at the one lovely table out front on a perfect fall night, thus being able to witness the constant flow of enthusiastic diners. Luana, also from Belgium, has worked in the cafe for several years and encouraged me to speak to Remy about the beers that they serve, promising me I would not be disappointed. As the bar filled up, Remy pulled down a laminated map from the ceiling. Picking up a lengthy pointer, this very clever man began my school lesson on Belgian beers from around the region. As he pointed to each district, he explained how the beer was made while also giving me both a history and geography education on Belgium and its surrounding countries. When I commented on how extraordinary this concept of the map was, Remy replied with a straight face, "I have been teaching here for almost ten years. " I then had to know how this map idea came to be. When the restaurant first opened, Remy found that he was always drawing Belgium on a cocktail napkin in an effort to explain interesting facts about the country to those seated in front of him. One day, he told me, "The boss asked why I was always using up so many napkins and when I explained, he thought it would be better if we just had a map. " Absolutely brilliant. Settling down at my outdoor table, dish after dish was presented to Manhattan Sideways' photographer Tom to photograph and then for us to eat. The Belgian cheese platter came with clever little flags on toothpicks that described what we were sampling. I took a special liking to Saint-Bernard, "produced in the heart of West Flanders, " and Brugge Jong, a "mild, smooth cheese. " The Belgian endive salad was served with Stilton and an aged balsamic dressing, while the tuna tartare sat atop a mound of mashed avocado. Piping hot Moules Frites arrived and as the top was lifted, the steam poured out from a vast pot of mussels. Carbonnade Flamande, similar to a beef bourguignon but cooked for six to eight hours in an aged dark beer, was the favorite of the night for my husband, who joined us. After the Carbonnade Flamande and two Belgian beers (Palm and Tripel Karmeliet), he expressed how he wished that he could spend more time with the Manhattan Sideways team. Just when he thought the fun was over, Luana appeared with their classic dessert: The Belgian waffles were served with a dollop of Speculoos (a ginger biscuit spread) and three traditional sauces - raspberry beer, chocolate and strawberry - the colors of Belgium's flag. Before leaving, I took a quick peek at the garden in the back, which provides outdoor seating throughout the summer and is enclosed during the colder months. Be it sitting cozily outside at the romantic table upfront, at any of the tables inside, or in the quiet garden, the experience is nothing short of exceptional. Not only is the food superb, but combined with the captivating staff, it makes for the perfect night out.