When Breads Bakery opened in 2013, Gadi Peleg began a love affair with the world of hospitality. "I loved feeding people and making them smile," he reflected as we sat around the high top tables in his recently opened restaurant, Nur. Gadi elaborated, saying that he has discovered a second passion. "Perhaps it is a bit selfish, but I love the walk from Breads to here." He allows himself the pleasure of wandering through the farmers market in Union Square before reaching his destination on East 20th. He has found a real connection with the neighborhood, and particularly 20th street.
"I wasn't looking to do anything else in hospitality, or in this neighborhood," Gadi admitted. "Honestly, it just happened. People approached me, and it all seemed to come together naturally." He described his meeting with Deb Polo, the former owner of County (where Nur now resides), who wanted out, and then, simultaneously, being introduced to the highly regarded Israeli chef, Meir Adoni, who was interested in opening a unique restaurant in Manhattan. Gadi said, "As soon as I stepped inside the space - while having Meir on my mind - I immediately realized that it all made sense." The space was cozy and a perfect fit for the kind of cuisine that they wanted to offer.
When I spoke to him in the early part of the summer in 2017, Gadi could not have been more pleased by the enthusiastic response that Nur had received since he opened only a few months prior. Chef Meir's menu reflects his Moroccan background, as well as his two Israeli restaurants in Tel Aviv. In New York, however, he has taken the typical street foods and strong flavors of the Middle Eastern markets and elevated them to haute cuisine, while presenting them in a relaxed, casual atmosphere.
Nur is unlike any other Israeli restaurant in the city. The concept involves using a classical French technique, but beautifully mixed with Middle Eastern spices. It is an interpretation of Meir's travels and culinary experiences over the years. He has introduced New York to a new category of food, which Gadi likes to refer to as, "Modern Middle Eastern - something brand new to the culinary world." Meir seems to have crafted a gastronomic language unique to him. There is no trace of the traditional falafel or hummus found on the menu, but one can find Fluke Kibbeh Nayeh with bulgur, harissa, yogurt, and black pepper Persian lemon powder. Served on the side is a shooter of creamy gazpacho. The wild black sea bass is presented with risotto, spring greens and an eggplant cream. The raw lamb is stuffed inside of a pita and then grilled to perfection. Gadi told me that this dish pays homage to the Palestinian cooks that have worked alongside Meir over the years. Spices prevail in every plate that comes out of the kitchen.
And then there is the bread. Unlike many restaurants, the bread takes center stage alongside the main courses. From the large, oval-sized Jerusalem sesame bagel served with za'atar and lima bean puree to the honey and garlic challah, each loaf reflects the clever concepts of the kitchen and is, of course, prepared at Gadi's renowned Breads Bakery on 16th Street.
Middle Eastern spices are even used in the alcoholic drinks, and Gadi is proud of the wine list, which features many bottles from the Middle East, helping to bring out the complexities of the food. The bar is situated towards the front of the restaurant and invites guests to walk in off the street and find a seat. Danielle Praport, the PR and marketing person behind all of Gadi's endeavors, remarked that the bar scene is really fun. "It is nice to see patrons talking about the food they are eating, and we are finding that more and more are choosing to sit and eat at the bar."
Of course, Gadi is thrilled with the warm reception he has received from the neighborhood. "I want this place to be for New Yorkers. We are trying to bring something from abroad, but make it for us." What is most important to Gadi, however, (and as is the case in his bakeries around the city) is the staff he hires. "They are the focus of everything," according to Gadi. "I cannot do one thing in the way of food prep in the kitchen or run the front of the room, but what I can do is bring in the best people. Out of all the compliments that I receive, the ones that I appreciate hearing the most are either when a staff person comes and tells me that they love working here, or a dinner guest comments on the remarkable experience that they have had."
From the time that I spent at Nur, it was evident that Gadi has surrounded himself with a warm and dedicated team. When I mentioned this, Danielle quickly chimed in: "It is a really cool place to work." She told me that there is no one better to work for than Gadi. He even closed the restaurant over the July 4th weekend and rented a small house on the beach in the Rockaways so that his kitchen staff could have some down time. "Who does that?" Danielle asked. "He truly treats every employee as if they are the most special person in the room."
Gadi commented that every time he walks into Nur, he experiences a moment of joy. "It is very rare to be able to say that I wouldn't want to change a thing in this place." I was intrigued to learn that the building dates back to 1865. It even predates Teddy Roosevelt's house next door. Gadi went into detail on the interior: While speaking with Deb, the previous owner, he learned that she had traveled to upstate NY to find the reclaimed wood that was presently on the walls. Gadi knew that he did not want to remove it, but he and architect Anurag Nema decided that it needed to be given a coat of white paint. "We took it from the Swiss Chalet feel to something more Israeli. A stroke of genius." The flooring also represents a Middle Eastern design. Gadi and Anurag purchased five different tile patterns and laid them out so that almost none of them touch one another, creating a perfect effect - "not too fancy and not too finished."
There was no doubt in my mind after speaking with Gadi that he is passionate about his latest venture, but also so appreciative that Nur has been recognized by many in the city. "People try to put a restaurant into a compartment, but at Nur we have broken away from there." New York is the greatest place on earth to have a culinary adventure - one can find almost anything here, but how amazing to have a brand new experience on 20th Street.
Renowned Alsatian Chef Antoine Westermann opened his first restaurant, Le Buerehiesel, at twenty-three years old. For several years, the self-taught chef continued to prepare memorable cuisine, earning the restaurant an illustrious three Michelin stars. In 2006, he had those stars recalled in order to escape the creative constriction that accompanied them, and in 2007, he ceded the restaurant to his son. Chef Westermann’s more recent restaurant endeavors offer sophisticated cuisine sans pomp. In Paris, he is the proud chef and owner of four such restaurants - Mon Vieil Ami, The Durant, La Dégustation, and Le Coq Rico. Translating to “Rico the Chicken, ” the first Le Coq Rico opened in 2011 as a restaurant entirely devoted to poultry. After all, the refined chef’s cuisine of choice is fried chicken and French fries. Before bringing Le Coq Rico to Manhattan in 2016, Westermann spent a couple of months sourcing poultry and establishing connections with farmers across the US that adhered to his standards of quality as part of his exploration of “American terroir. ” Unbeknownst to the chef at the time, the space he chose in Gramercy resides next to Theodore Roosevelt’s birthplace, which houses a collection of taxidermy birds. “This one just felt right, ” the staff joked. As to be expected from a chef of Westermann’s caliber, the menu at Le Coq Rico in New York is anything but ordinary. The minimum slaughtering age of the specialty whole birds served is ninety days, more than double the forty-day standard, and Catskill Gunea Fowl are given one-hundred and thirty days. “After that they become a rooster, ” I was informed. Another specialty dish, the “baeckeoffe, ” originates from an Alsatian laundry day tradition. When the women were busy with laundry and did not have the time to cook, they would drop off a marinade of potatoes, beef and sauces to a baker, who would seal the casserole dish with dough and let it cook slowly. Westermann’s version employs chicken, truffles, and white wine. Watching some of the other dishes come out, I would have never guessed that they were all the same species. The playful giblets platter veiled the bird’s offal with elegant skewers, spiced croquettes, glossy wings, and horseradish toast. A foamy butter bath with micro greens overlay the slow-cooked guinea fowl egg, and I was relieved to find out that the tomato and poultry tartare was not raw, but instead similar to an elevated chicken salad encircled by caper sauce. Birds play a role in other parts of the restaurant, too. In addition to French and American wines displayed in a pristine wine cave, the bar offers a bird-themed cocktail program. One of the most popular, The Elvis in the Sky, is an alcoholic take on the singer’s famed peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwich. The “Duck Fitch, ” a mix of gin, turmeric, ginger, and mint, is named for the celebrated polymath artist, Doug Fitch. Having lived with a bird for a month after a live performance piece, Doug was deemed the perfect candidate to design the cheerful rooster that has become Le Coq Rico’s emblem. His backlit, blue-and-white painting is on view for guests seated in the main dining area or at the bar that faces the open kitchen. Serving simple food expertly prepared, Chef Westermann is not only a master in the kitchen, but an excellent mentor as well. Floor Manager and Sommelier Adrien Boulouque could not be more thankful for his fifteen years of experience working with the humble and soft spoken chef. “I met him in Washington D. C. and now I am here, ” he mused. “It is all about sharing and respect. ” This respect is geared towards the staff, the guests, and, of course, the birds.
Nemo Tile’s beginnings date back to 1921 in Jamaica, Queens. Nemo Tile is responsible for lining and decorating many of New York’s most famed and frequently traveled spaces and landmarks: The Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, the original World Trade Center, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, the W Hotels, and “countless residences, ” according to their staff, all bear their unique tiles. The company specializes in usable, heavily trafficked tiles, of all colors, shapes, materials, and sizes, but Nemo also works on smaller, more decorative or intimate architectural and interior projects. I spoke to Charlotte Barnard, the head of marketing, who told me a bit about the the company’s history and the changes that Nemo has undergone since its inception. Jerry Karlin partnered with, and subsequently took over from, the original owner in the 1950s and since then, the company has been in the hands of three generations of this family run business. I think what struck me most, though, was when I put the pieces together and realized that I grew up in the same town as the Karlin's. One of their daughters was a childhood friend, and our parents were also very close. I even have fond memories of a trip that I took with the Karlins to Florida when I was about fifteen. All of a sudden, Nemo Tiles took on a whole new meaning for me. As I continued my conversation with Charlotte, she informed me that many things have not changed since 1921 - the original location is still operating in Queens and the Karlin family is still involved with MTA projects, including the new Fulton Street station, which features Nemo glass tiles. There have, however, been revolutionary inventions in the tile industry, especially thanks to advances in technology. 3D printing has made it possible to make porcelain look like stone, wood, and even metal. Charlotte proudly stated that Nemo Tile sees some of the most traffic of surrounding showrooms. She pointed out that they have a great location, and that similar companies have followed their lead in moving to the Gramercy area. The company finds most of their products at two major tile shows in Bologna and Florida, but they have wares from all over the world, from China to North America. They have an especially large Italian selection, and Charlotte told us that Nemo had been named “Distributor of the Year” by Confindustria Ceramica, the trade organization for Italian tile. I was deeply impressed with the showroom itself and the constant flow of people stopping by to browse and make purchases: the floor was a clever patchwork of different styles of tile, sliding pull-out displays were tucked into the walls, allowing the space to remain uncluttered, and props like shower heads and mirrors decorated the walls. Charlotte explained, “We are more than a typical tile store. We show tiles within the context of lifestyle. It is a new way to see space, and we are constantly updating the displays. ”
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.
The Players, an organization founded in the late Nineteenth Century to further the careers of talented actors by linking them with established patrons of the arts, is a place of considerable national historic, artistic, and dramatic importance. Though founded by, and for, a small group of primarily American Shakespearean Actors, today The Players serves over 700 active theater and film actors, television hosts, arts patrons, and businessmen and women. Although a private club, non-members are given access to this simply remarkable townhouse that serves as its home - guests are invited to the occasional theater production and lectures that are held here. Edwin Booth, the most famous American Shakespearean actor of his time, purchased the mansion at 15 Gramercy Park South and had it redesigned by famed architect Stanford White to house a monumental club and theater for actors and a residence for himself on the upper floors. The ornate chandeliers, wooden parquet floors, gilded ceiling wreaths, Tiffany Glass windows, open circular staircase, indoor stage, library, and dining room are lined with portraits of Edwin by John Singer Sargent and paintings of the faces of every distinguished member of the club throughout its history. From founding member Mark Twain, to Frank Sinatra, to Carroll Burnett, to Uma Thurman, the breadth of actors and theatrical personalities covering the old, intricately carved walls was awe inspiring. A particularly memorable painting was a full-length portrait of the late, celebrated theater patron Helen Hayes wearing a brilliant, crimson velvet gown. Hayes was the first female to be admitted in 1989. The building is still filled with many of the original decorations, objects, and pieces of furniture used by the founding members of the club: the simple wood “club tables” by the bar in the dining room; humidors and personalized drinking mugs for the famously heavy smokers and alcoholics of the old Shakespearean crew; and mosaic tiles carved with words of wisdom for the actors themselves. “Dear actors, ” reads one – “eat not onions, nor garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath. ” And another, a particularly revealing line from Shakespeare, “you shall not budge, you go not till I set you up a glass. ”And for the real history buffs – Edwin Booth had an older brother, John, another famous Shakespearean actor. The brothers disagreed and competed over everything, from their individual claim to particular theater venues to politics (Edwin was a Unionist, John a Confederate). They settled on a compromise to divide the country into two theatrical spheres for each to work in – Edwin in the North, John in the South. And as for their political disagreements, John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in the Ford Theater on April 14, 1865. When we visited in late 2012, The Players was about to celebrate its 125th anniversary. After asking our tour guide, the knowledgeable assistant executive director of the Club, John McCormick, how he felt about his job, he responded “I get goose bumps every time I think about this site that I work in. ”