Tucked away behind a small, elegant display of earthy bamboo, stone rocks and brick walls lies the intimate setting of O Ya, an esteemed restaurant known to bring intense, Japanese-oriented flavor into small, savory bites. When I came for Friends and Family night - prior to the official opening - with my husband and friends, we were taken aback by the seamless attention to detail from each morsel of food to every inch of aesthetic element.
Chef Tim Cushman and Sake Sommelier Nancy Cushman first opened O Ya at the site of an old Boston firehouse in 2007. In 2015, they opened their New York City location that connects to Park South, a newly renovated boutique hotel with a beautiful rooftop bar. Chef Cushman got his start in the culinary world by chance. He had traveled to Los Angeles in pursuit of a music career and accepted a position in a restaurant to help support himself. Since then, Tim has brought fine cooking across the globe, achieving multiple accolades throughout his journey. Nancy found a love for sake when she first experienced it in her hometown, Chicago. She is one of fewer than 100 people worldwide to complete the Advanced Sake Professional Course in Japan. Together, the well-qualified husband-and-wife-duo gives O Ya a seamless marriage of flavor and finesse.
The interior of O Ya is an organic cohesion of wood-based décor garnished with precious sake bottles, antique sake kuras, orchid flowers, Japanese engravings, and a luscious cherry blossom plant. The majority of light is sourced from beams on the ceiling, and the sixty seats are a cozy mix of booths, tables, and stools pulled up to the lengthy sushi bar. Men in black caps and white aprons stand behind this glorious sushi bar, slicing away with concentrated precision. I was in awe as I watched one handle a massive bright red, raw kinmedai fish in so delicate a fashion. As I found my place at our table, most of the staff kept their focus, but one looked up with a smile as if to say, “You are in good hands tonight.”
Seated, each of us was given a set of wooden chopsticks along with a unique chopstick rest - almost no two were the same. Our waiter started our friends out with a bite-sized ocean trout sushi, which they discovered had been flash cooked for a few seconds to heighten its spices. They were overflowing with praise, promising us that they had never tasted anything quite like it. Little did they realize how much more was to come. The chef’s tasting menu, a momentous affair of bite-after-bite for eighteen ($185.00) or twenty-four ($245.00) courses, is brimming with innovative flavor flowing fluidly from one plate to the next.
Shortly after applauding one dish, another arrived, this time a pink hamachi dowsed in truffle oil, followed by warm eel prepared with Thai basil and succulent sauces, and then a surprise warm chive and tamago omelet - dish after dish were truly layered works of art. Our friends favored the lobster on a house made potato chip until, of course, the Toro came out - flavorfully spiced raw pink tuna with green onion. A delectable fried kumamoto oyster topped with squid ink foam, and then a vibrant sea urchin comprised of greens, oranges, and reds. Attempting to figure out the various components of the dishes, as they were presented, became part of the evening's entertainment.
Our friends continued to be charmed by the foie gras nigri in a balsamic chocolate kabayaku, paired with an eight-year-old saki, while my husband, closed his eyes as he bit into the kobe wagyu petit sirloin, savoring his small bit of heaven, and announcing that he finally understood why our daughter and son-in-law had been so overwhelmingly enthusiastic about their recent visit to O Ya's Boston location. And for myself, I was enchanted by the vegetable plates that were set down before me - the mushroom broth with house made tofu, the lightly fried avocado tempura, and another mushroom dish with a sesame foam - piece by piece everyone's food was a symphony of colors, tastes and textures creating an extraordinary meal for the four of us.
There is no doubt that O Ya will become a place where good company pairs nicely with superb bites and amazing sake. Dinner is an occasion to treasure, and I was pleased, and appreciative, to have been able to share in the opening of this newcomer to the Japanese dining experience in Manhattan.
Fabio Camardi - the charming owner both of this restaurant and Mercato on West 39th Street - announced as we walked inside his brand new restaurant that it had taken two years to complete his renovation. He went on to say that he had chosen the location because he is fond of the architecture in the NoMad neighborhood – “architecture is my hobby,” he told me. “I built this place myself,” he went on to say, showing me how he had added the beams in the ceiling and created the new floor made of reclaimed red and white oak. When I commented on the furniture filling the restaurant, including tables from a library upstate and an old butcher’s block, Fabio informed me that he has been collecting antiques for years.While continuing to chat about the renovation, Fabio explained that it was slow going due to the fact that the building dates back to 1865 and has achieved landmark status. Therefore, he had to wait for official permits to do any work. When the restaurant opened in April 2016, Fabio was delighted by how friendly the neighborhood was. “They were immediately nice,” he said.The highlight of visiting Ulivo, aside from Fabio, was seeing the “Pasta Lab.” Unlike its sister restaurant, Ulivo focuses on pasta, with fifteen different dishes on the menu. Thirteen of those are made with help from an enormous machine that sits in the basement. “It’s the most advanced machine we have in Italy,” Fabio proudly told me. He turned the machine on and I was able to watch as it created large tubes of rigatoni and then long strings of spaghetti, using a different setting. “The more pasta you make, the better it gets,” Fabio informed me.Beyond the pasta lab, there was an event space that seats forty, complete with a full bar and a Faema espresso machine from 1949. At the end of the room, I spotted a special door with a porthole that opens onto the beer cooler, and, in the very back, built out of the old coal shaft, I discovered a cave where the liquor is kept. Upstairs, there is a wine cellar encased in glass with a wooden ladder next to the kitchen. I was intrigued by the row of twenty different olive oils sitting on the counter in easy reach of the chefs. Fabio makes sure that each brand is made and bottled in Italy. When I asked which olive oil was the best, he said he could not answer the question. “It’s based on your taste, like wine.” In the kitchen itself, different meats were hanging across from a wood fire oven on the opposite wall.Along with pasta, Emanuel “Mano” Concas, partner and the chef (whom Fabio refers to as “The George Clooney of Sardinia), cooks “dal forno a legna” in the wood-fire oven. Each plate is created using a cast iron pan placed directly into the oven. Some of the more popular non-pasta dishes are the tail-in branzino and the dry-aged steak. Being familiar with the themes of good Italian cooking, I was not surprised when Fabio told me, “Everything is fresh.” This is especially true for the restaurant’s “fritture,” little dishes. These items include fresh octopus, cold cuts, burrata, and fried meatballs with sea salt, a dish that is particularly popular in Sardinia, where the chef is from.There are also two flatbreads on the menu, but Fabio was adamant that Ulivo is not a pizza restaurant. He simply chose the two that they do "best" at Mercato: The San Daniele with prosciutto and arugula and the Regina Margherita. Fabio shared the myth behind the latter: The story goes that Italian chefs decided to put something special before the Queen. Up until that time, pizzas just had sauce, and so they added buffalo mozzarella to make it royal, hence the “Regina.”If there is a certain nonchalance about Fabio and his attitude toward owning two restaurants in New York, it is probably because he has a lot of experience in this world – he even went to culinary school, which is rare amongst Italians, who often just rest on the fact that they were born into a culture that puts a lot of emphasis on high-quality food. Fabio shared that he owns four restaurants in Italy, which his forty-four cousins help to run. He went on to tell me that he came to the United States in 2004 because he “didn’t like Berlusconi” (the unpopular former Prime Minister of Italy) and that he began his career in New York as a bartender (the cocktail list at Ulivo is his own creation). In addition, there are four local beers on tap, including Smart Beer, which Fabio says is the "first organic beer made in New York." There is also a substantial bourbon list – “It’s what people want.”I particularly loved the story of how he met his wife, who is originally from Korea: they were both attending English school. Several years later, they have two adorable children and “She’s my bookkeeper,” he said with a smile. His wife is also responsible for the beautiful candles and dried flowers throughout the space. Fabio is playing with the idea of opening an Italian restaurant in Korea. He told me that there is no fresh olive oil available in eastern Asia, but that China had recently planted one million olive trees to try to remedy the situation. Olive oil is absolutely essential to Italian cooking, which is why Fabio named his restaurant “Ulivo.” He stated, “There is no Italian cuisine without olive oil.”Fabio’s vision for Ulivo is a perfect blend of traditional and modern. Though he uses traditional Italian culinary methods and pasta recipes, he embraces new technology - such as his pasta machine - and trends. When I asked what was next for Fabio, he responded, “I’m full of ideas – there’s a lot of stuff that I want to try and eat. I love to eat!”
Everyone on West 28th between Sixth Avenue and Seventh Avenue has a story to tell about life on the garden block, but I found one of the workers at Foliage Garden's story to be the most inspiring. "I was raised in the Flower District. My entire life is wrapped up in this street," she told me. "I invested my life here." After 9/11, however, she made the decision to move upstate, where she felt safer raising her daughter.Not long after, she came running back to the city at the call of her dear childhood friend. Maryann Finnegan had recently lost her husband and needed help running Foliage Garden, a retail and wholesale market that sells magnificent orchids and a multitude of other plants. The part-time worker at Foliage proudly told me that the shop has been in the same location for over thirty-five years, having opened in 1981. Maryann added, "We are now the oldest plant store on the street." She then said that what differentiates her from everyone else is, "we have our own greenhouses under glass on Long Island."Maryann and her team have befriended many of the people who created the Flower District a long time ago. Sadly, her co-worker related that "so many of the old men have passed away." There are still, however, a few remaining who have wonderful stories to share. "There is so much history on this block," she continued. "We were once called the Times Square of Flowers." She described a time when every single storefront was filled with flowers. Today, she is pleased that she came back to Manhattan. "I can put up with anything here because I still love it - it's my passion."
New York is full of pizza shops, and its residents pride themselves on knowing their pies. Satisfying a New Yorker’s pizza craving can be a difficult task, but &Pizza does so in spades, serving a fabulous and delicious array of large, creative, sixteen-inch personal pies.When the Manhattan Sideways team visited &Pizza at their first location in New York, we spoke with Calvin, the Community Manager for the brand. “New York is a city that appreciates creativity and artistic angles, and our pizza does just that,” Calvin said. Originally founded in Washington DC in 2012, &Pizza decided to expand their market and open their twenty-second spot here in Manhattan during the summer of 2017.The restaurant serves unique pizzas alongside classic menu items such as a Margherita. “Pizza in the industry is kind of stale, but we decided to shake it up, mix things up.” Calvin noted. The American Honey, a pie with spicy tomato, mozzarella, pepperoni, arugula, red pepper flakes, goat cheese, and Mike’s Hot Honey, became a big hit on day one. The unique honey flavor combines well with the pizza’s other ingredients. Another favorite is the Farmer’s Daughter, a pizza with spicy tomato, spinach, mozzarella, Italian sausage, egg, red pepper chili oil, and parmesan.While many customers choose to stick to &Pizza’s pre-determined “Hits” menu, others love to build their own creation, adding unlimited toppings for a flat price. Patrons are also encouraged to add any toppings of their choosing to the “Hits” items, creating a virtually unlimited combination of flavors. Pizzas are cooked in under two minutes, a key to churning out customers during the busy lunch hours. Calvin told us that he loves to eat the restaurant’s pizza and to add his own twist to classic menu items. “I always wonder, what will this pizza taste like with pepperoni, or that one with hot honey? The possibilities are endless.”Also on the menu are &Pizza's homemade sodas, with innovative flavors such as mango passionfruit and Ginger Berry Lemonade. As with their pizzas, the staff suggests pairings on the soda machine, allowing bold new flavors to arise.Every &Pizza location has a unique design that caters to the neighborhood, and the Flatiron store is no exception. This one is nicknamed “The Point” for its location at the tip of the Flatiron District. The entire store is specifically designed to fit around this pointed theme; the repurposed and recolored subway tiles on the wall are fitted to be pointed, the utensil holder is angled, even the mirrors in the bathroom are pointed. The store’s black and white interior, the color scheme of the &Pizza brand, creates a beautiful aesthetic that customers love, Calvin said. On the ceiling, the light structure mimics the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Broadway, the store’s location.In order to pump up customers and create a fun atmosphere, &Pizza blasts loud music throughout the store. “When we first opened up," Calvin told us, "people kept on passing by and asking, ‘Is this a club? It looks so fun in here!’ We have live DJs on Thursdays and Fridays, and people enjoy stopping in just for the music sometimes.”One of the other wonderful aspects of &Pizza is their dedication to working with the local community, wherever they are located. At this location, they have partnered with David Chang’s Milk Bar to create a unique cream soda and cream soda-flavored cookie, both of which are only available in New York. The art on the walls was done by New York artists Rubin and Frisco Smith, both in black and white to fit in with the rest of the store.At the end of our conversation with Calvin, we asked him about the &Pizza name. “We believe in the power of ampersands, which binds and connects things, just like us. We combine creative ingredients, we combine local artists, we connect the community. Everything we do stays true to the ampersand.”
My husband and I discovered a market called Kalustyan's when we first lived in the city, over thirty years ago, however, they have been a staple on Lexington Avenue since 1944. It is a terrific place to find all kinds of interesting Middle Eastern and Indian ingredients at very low prices, but it was not until recently that I learned that they are also the owners of Curry In a Hurry, just around the corner. Since the 1970s, the restaurant has been a lunchtime staple in Curry Hill, as this neighborhood is known. With a large buffet, complimentary unlimited salad bar, outdoor tables and chairs and upstairs seating that overlooks the street, local residents and workers have more than enough reason to return on a regular basis.