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.
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!”
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.
The first thing that caught the Manhattan Sideways team's eye when we walked into Eats was a waiter walking by with a burger full of melted gooey cheese and onions. The burger, it seems, is one of the three items that Eats is known for, along with oysters and martinis. I met Michael Gimelfarb, the manager, who then introduced me to Vlad, one of the owners. Vlad was happily tucking into a meal that the kitchen had whipped up for him. “We all eat here,” Mike said, and then added, “We have a very eclectic menu.”Mike, whose father is also one of the owners, feels very lucky that Eats has been welcomed by the neighborhood. They have a lot of regulars and have been recognized as a great place for brunch, lunch and dinner. Judging by the midday crowd, the eatery seems like a popular place with families, both old and young. Mike stressed, however, that Eats is not a diner. “Some people come in wanting pastrami on rye, but that’s not us.”I then spoke to Oscar, the chef, who has been working in well-known New York restaurants since 2000. Originally from Mexico, he “came here for the opportunities,” and appears to have made the most of every door that has opened for him. After learning all he could from restaurants such as Aquavit and Rosa Mexicano, he became the head chef at Eats when it first opened in 2011. Oscar then sweetly added, “In Mexico, I looked at my mom and saw how she cooked, but I didn’t know it would be my future until I came to New York.”
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.
The James B. Duke house is the first building one encounters on a block known as "Millionaire's Row." It was built for James Buchanan Duke, one of the founders of the American Tobacco Company, in 1912. It is now an academic building used by New York University's Institute of Fine Arts.
Stores like Martine’s Antiques are exactly the kind of businesses I look for on the side streets. Though small, every inch of the shop has some new treasure to discover. There are watches, jewelry, glassware, and various knick knacks decorating the room. Though she has been in New York since 1992, Martine Leventer's lilting French accent added music to her descriptions of each of the pieces that she has hand-selected for her shop.Martine began her career as a journalist in Paris, writing about business and the economy. She occasionally wrote about art, but usually only in terms of auctions and its financial role in society. She told me, however, that she had always had a great love for antiques, “ever since I can remember, in fact.” She recalled the very first antique she bought as a teenager – a bronze candle holder. Since then, she admits, “I’ve been buying way too much in my life.” She spent some time between the United States and France, collecting antiques from each location, but when she first went into business in New York, it was as a chocolatier. She had two chocolate shops: one on the Upper East Side, where she lives, and a small shop in Bloomingdale’s. Chocolate, however, was not where her true passion lay: “Having an antique store has been a dream of mine since I was very young,” she told me. She began selling little pieces at her Bloomingdale’s location, mostly costume jewelry. She then opened an antique store on 82nd Street in 1997, while continuing to operate her chocolate shops. The current location opened in 2012 and she closed her chocolate business a year later.Martine is proud of the fact that her store is a specially curated selection of antiques. “Everyone tells me I have a good eye,” she said humbly. She does not work in bulk or in estate sales: everything is something that caught her eye. Martine is especially drawn to costume jewelry, old watches - “Old watches have a heart that beats,” she said poetically - and vintage American glassware. She used to use colorful glass plates and bowls to show off her chocolates. “I look for something that is either beautiful or funny, something that makes my day. It is important to have things in your house that give you happy feelings.”Though she still has a couple customers who have been with her from the very beginning, many of her original clients have moved away. She has realized that that is a pattern in New York: things are constantly shifting and changing. Though some change may be good, for the most part it means higher rents. “So many small businesses have disappeared. It’s so heartbreaking.” She elaborated, “Being from France, I don’t like seeing little old buildings being demolished.” In Martine's view, the city is starting to become too angular, as harsh modern architecture starts to take over from the old world.When she first came to the United States, she was surprised by the variety of antiques. In France, most of the antiques are French, with perhaps a few English or German pieces if you look hard. The United States, on the other hand, is a source of antiques from around the world. Martine had never come in contact with American Vintage before, and immediately took a liking to it. Additionally, costume jewelry was cheaper and more accessible in the U.S. She discovered, however, that New Yorkers were often more interested in European pieces. She explained her frustration to me: In terms of antiques, architecture, and art, Americans will travel hundreds of miles to view masterpieces but will not show any respect towards the beautiful works of art on their own shores. “I hope people wake up soon,” she said, “and learn to not throw away the beauty of their own heritage.”
Before he discovered the intriguing land of miniatures, Leslie Edelman practiced as an attorney. This all changed when he befriended a couple that owned a doll house business on Lexington Avenue in the 1980s. “The next thing I knew, I was working with them.” Leslie would go to shows and spend his spare time doing odd jobs in the shop. When the couple was ready to retire, they asked if he wanted to purchase the shop. Enchanted with the idea of opening a niche business, building tiny furniture, and traveling the world collecting doll house pieces, Leslie said yes. Today, he is also the mastermind behind many of Tiny Doll House’s designs.In the mid-1990s, the store moved to East 78th, where it has seen its clientele change over the decades. Initially, the business attracted people from around the globe who had an interest in the hobby. “They would come to us as we were the tourist center of the world.” There were also local families interested in building their children a doll house, and then it turned to collectors as later generations became immersed in electronics. “Today, we are seeing more and more young people have a renewed interest in miniatures.”Who would not be fascinated by the rows of tiny watches, tea sets, board games, bottles of wine, minuscule cakes, and musical instruments? Modern leather couches, mini televisions, and beautifully crafted Lilliputian antiques decorate the various houses that also run the gamut. There are stores, workshops, Tudor cottages, and federal mansions. Leslie even sells the mini people who go inside each model, ranging from a small rendering of the Mad Hatter to a woman in an elaborate sari sitting next to a hookah.A standout moment for Leslie and his partner, Tim Porter, was the day “Joan Rivers flung open the door, threw her shoes to one corner and her fur coat to another, and the next thing we knew we were building a house for her.” She used it as a prop on QVC to promote her charm bracelets. “She sold a hell of a lot of them!”