On more than one occasion, as we walked 45th, a long line snaked out of BentOn, a small takeout eatery. This tiny gem provides authentic Japanese bento boxes to the lunch crowd in Midtown, a welcome break from traditional American fare. When striking up a conversation with a Japanese businessman who had stopped by for lunch, he shared his opinion about the food, saying that he felt it had been modified a bit for American palettes, but was as close to authentic as he had tried in Manhattan. The bento boxes vary per day and are served alongside their specialty drinks.
Aburiya Kinnosuke itself seems to be a portal away from the midtown bustle into a quiet and elegant Tokyo restaurant. Seating is available in the main dining room, around the grill, and in small private rooms - one of which features tatami mats, where guests can have a more traditional Japanese experience. Focusing on the izakaya style of dining, the meal is usually comprised of several small dishes shared among a table (comparable to the Spanish tradition of tapas). The menu is extensive, featuring over 100 plates, most of which are based on robata grilling, another Japanese culinary tradition in which skewers are slow-grilled over hot charcoal. Arriving in time for lunch, two of our team were the eager enthusiasts willing to try the specials of the day - dishes prepared in limited quantities each afternoon. On this particular day, there was very fresh Bluefin tuna collar, followed by the Aburiya set – a dish that featured simmered fish, washu beef and sashimi – and then everyone's favorite, the bentou box set, filled with a combination of Japanese small dishes.
Once we figured out where we needed to go - through the lobby of a commercial building and down a few flights - we parted a curtain, and turned to each other with broad smiles on our faces and gestures of approval. A friend had mentioned Sakagura a while back, saying don't forget to find this amazing Japanese restaurant when you are walking on 43rd. I put it in my notes, and made reservations on a Thursday evening at 7: 00 pm. We only waited a few minutes, but when we were taken to our booth - we were a party of six - every table was filled. Somehow the minimal interior with cement flooring, simple wood tables, bamboo, and a bar that extends down an entire side of the restaurant came together seamlessly. For me, however, it was the large flowering branches of cherry blossoms that captured my attention - and heart. It was the middle of April, and I had been eagerly awaiting these trees to open their buds in Central Park, but they had been taking their sweet time after a very cold winter. Known for their extensive selection of Sake, we browsed through the long list, and then took the advice of our server. Several of the items on the menu were a bit different from what some of us were accustomed to sampling, but that we did. Together with some standards like edamame, we ordered numerous small plates and main dishes to share - chicken, beef, fish, including fried eel and fillet of salmon sashimi, udon noodles, spinach with a sesame paste, rice balls with miso painted on top and the show-stopper, mashed potato balls fried in a sweet donut batter. Different and delicious.
Dainobu is a small Japanese market filled to the brim with aisles of colorful packages of food. Fridges along the side walls house the day's selection of bento boxes prepared fresh in a small kitchen at the back of the store. When we walked 47th street, Maria and Jasphy, two of the summer interns, loved browsing the aisles, impressed by its authenticity – "Dainobu is the real deal, " they said. The girls picked up a daifuku each and left happy with their sweet treats.
Opened in 1992 and originally located on the Upper East Side, Oceana moved to 49th Street in 2009. The Livanos family sowed the seeds for the glorious Oceana long ago when they ran a diner and realized their ambitions to develop it into something more. Having worked hard to make their dreams a reality, Oceana continues to pride itself on the freshness of its food and makes a point to have direct relationships with the fish mongers and farmers. Although some have called Oceana the Mecca of seafood, the restaurant's menu is notably diverse. The executive chef, Ben Pollinger, takes to the broad reaches of American cuisine and mixes elements of different dishes together, often in an unexpected way. The Manhattan Sideways team eagerly sampled a few of the marvelous dishes, including the Copper River Sockeye Salmon Crudo, featuring pickled ramps, parsley oil, and Amagansett sea salt, and the Sea Scallops Ceviche that is topped with peaches, ginger, and cinnamon basil. I was pleasantly surprised by the incredible vegetarian dish that the chef also prepared - Summer Squash & Cranberry Bean Salad, consisting of zucchini, gold bar and pattypan squash, pignoli, purslane and drizzled in lemon vinaigrette. Absolutely delicious. The last member of the Oceana team that we were introduced to was their wine director, Pedro Goncalves. Pedro, who began working at Oceana in 2001, makes a concerted effort to develop drink pairings to accompany the delectable food menu. Standing near the white marble bar, he proudly told us that Oceana has 1100 wine listings and 600 spirits. He went on to report that with forty-seven different gins, Oceana has one of the largest selections of in the city. "There is something to fit every personality, " Pedro said.
La Maison du Chocolat is a sophisticated example of a delectable chocolate shop. Everything sold inside its doors is made in Paris, with the exception of the ice cream that includes ingredients from France but is prepared on site. The day that Manhattan Sideways stopped by, we met Brigitte who has been working here since 2010. A knowledgeable chocolate connoisseur, Brigitte shared La Maison's history. We learned that Robert Linxe, the founder was originally from the French Basque Country, but acquired much of his craft while attending school in Switzerland. He went on to run a successful catering service in Paris for twenty years before deciding to pursue his true passion. At the time, chocolate was considered something to be saved strictly for special occasions; as Brigitte told us, people thought Linxe's enthusiasm for a shop devoted to chocolate was "crazy. " Nevertheless, Linxe was able to find an auspicious space in Paris with a wine cellar, which he used to make the delicacies and protect them from the damaging effects of the weather. In 1977, Linxe opened the doors and welcomed Paris to his specialty boutique. Within three weeks, all of the chocolate had been sold and Linxe was dubbed the master of ganache. And in 1996, over twenty years later, Nicolas Cloiseau, the highly acclaimed chocolatier and pastry chef joined the business continuing La Maison's coveted reputation. Brigitte stressed that the discussion of chocolate is akin to that of wine; expertise comes from reading on the subject, perhaps taking a course, and most importantly, much experience. Moreover, chocolate and wine may be enjoyed together when paired consciously. Chocolate always goes well with "a nice red wine, " Brigitte said. Quickly turning to the particulars, she added that milk chocolate is best paired with white wine and dark chocolate with port. Brigitte continued to enlighten us, saying with detectable fervor, "Good dark chocolate should not be bitter. " It takes approximately ten days to dry cocoa beans. Rushing this process, a common crime of many chocolate companies, results in this bitter taste. Brigitte made a point of showing us how to taste chocolate: smell it first and then let it melt in your mouth. After this incredible offering of chocolate wisdom, Brigitte presented us with a plate of small pieces of chocolate arranged deliberately in a circle. Beginning at forty percent, each successive piece around the circle had an increased concentration of pure chocolate. We continued to climb past eighty and concluded with a piece of one hundred percent pure chocolate. At this point, a natural thickness set in and the pieces lost all association with candy. Suddenly, each of us agreed, it felt as though we were appreciating chocolate, not as a beloved dessert or comforting treat, but as a wonder of the earth.