Yoko Hasegawa, the owner of this Upper West Side sushi bar, went to a temple in Japan to discover the best name for her new restaurant in Manhattan. She came back with Kaito, which means "Sea Breeze."
When I visited the twelve-seat restaurant shortly after it opened in the summer of 2017, Jorge Dionicio, one of the talented members of the team at Sushi Kaito, told me that he began making sushi in Peru. He explained to me that there is a large Japanese population in his country. "Everything started there for me a long time ago," he said. He went to school for electrical engineering and worked at a sushi bar while attending university.
"The more I know, I know nothing," he admitted. After spending several years in New York, working at different restaurants, he realized that he needed to spend time in Japan to learn the "real" technique. In 2009, he spent one year there "to be trained," but he continues to go back to learn more and more as often as possible. Part of the schooling, he admitted with a chuckle, is to eat in as many sushi bars as possible.
Although he has been making sushi for fifteen years, Jorge has no desire to work in any other type of cuisine. Jorge chose to come to Kaito because he appreciated the philosophy of engaging with the customers and developing personal relationships with people. When I inquired whether or not the restaurant already had returning diners, Jorge enthusiastically replied, "Oh yeah - over and over."
Jorge was proud to tell me that on the evening after the first little, local write up on the restaurant was published, sixty-two people stood outside, hoping to get in. Unfortunately, there were not enough seats, and the employees had to turn dozens of people away. In a small, intimate setting that is decorated simply, so as not to take away from what is going on behind the counter, guests can pull up a chair, engage in conversation with the staff who are preparing the sushi, and savor the fresh fish that arrives on a daily basis straight from Japan.
When I asked Jorge what makes the place special, he quickly responded, "Everything we do, we do with our heart," all from scratch. "We pick our own ginger, make our own soy sauce and put an emphasis on purity." He added that the restaurant aims for perfection. "Maybe we never get it but we are always looking for it." He said that the employees enjoy making the people smile and giving them a memorable meal. "It's not just about food, it is a life experience." Jorge believes that Sushi Kaito is different from other sushi bars - "We enjoy speaking with guests, answering their questions." While the atmosphere does not feel overly serious, he emphasized, "We are, though, very serious about our product." He continued, "Here, we are very different. We take care of everything." The other men preparing the food side by side with Jorge all nodded in agreement. "Although it is a lot of work, it never feels like work," one of them explained. Jorge told us, "I leave at midnight, go home, take a shower, climb into bed, and wake up eager to do it all over again the next day. I love what I do, so I never mind."
Amber Upper West relocated from Columbus Avenue to this dimly lighted, intimate side street enclave in 2015. A wood-beamed ceiling and whitewashed walls are organically accented with well-illuminated hanging plants and a graphic, black and white tree painting. With a menu featuring a large selection of rolls, grilled dishes, and sushi to be shared in either the conventional dining space or well-stocked bar, this side street gem offers more than just lovely decor.
When I first learned that this restaurant was considered one of the best sushi spots in the neighborhood, I was eager to take friends there to try it. As a vegetarian, I was able to find several of my favorite Japanese dishes offered, and others were quite pleased with their orders from Yasaka's sushi bar. I have since been back numerous times and it is no surprise to me that the restaurant has been a consistently popular dining destination since it first opened in 2011. The menu is tasty and creative and the restaurant is always filled, no matter what the time of day. Even at noon in the middle of the week, when I took the Manhattan Sideways team for lunch, there were patrons at every table. Without a reservation, no one seems to be able to grab a seat, even at the sushi counter. Surrounded by Japanese prints decorating the walls and traditional Shoji dividing screens, we ordered a bowl of edamame to share. Beginning with the house miso soup, Sideways team members Tom and Olivia tucked into a salad followed by shrimp shumai, tempura, rice, and a sushi roll of their choice, while I enjoyed an order of the steamed veggie dumplings. In addition to the excellent food, the lunch special is a great deal at $12.00, and explains why so many choose to come in for their midday meal.
When I visited Tip Top Shoes in the summer of 2015, the store was celebrating its seventy-fifth anniversary. Danny Wasserman proudly showed me the most recent edition of Footwear News, which was essentially dedicated to Tip Top. There were messages from countless sponsors in the shoe world, congratulating the Wasserman family for their longevity. Sitting down with Danny and his children, Lester and Margot, who are in charge of West NYC and Tip Top Kids respectively was an absolute pleasure.Having grown up just a block away, Lester and Margot were immersed in the business even as toddlers. In high school, both began working at the store with their dad. Lester was immediately drawn into the world of shoes, learning as much as he could with the ultimate goal of opening his own sneaker shop, West NYC, a few doors down. Lester explained to me that Tip Top already sold sporty designer men's shoes, but that he expanded this concept into a trendier store in 2007. Margot, on the other hand, knew that she wanted to work in retail, but began her career with Ralph Lauren. She stayed there through the dot-com revolution and then returned to work for her father.Included in the copy of Footwear News was a picture of how the store looked decades ago. Display cases took up the first few feet on either side of the door. Danny's grandfather originally opened the store after coming to the United States from Israel. He chose to buy the little shoe shop, which had been uptown in Riverdale, from an elderly German couple. The family then moved the store to 72nd Street. "Things were very different," Danny explained to me. "People were less affluent, there were fewer options, and every shoe in the store was in the window." He told me that at one point there were two black shoes and two brown shoes for men, and that was what customers had to choose from. Expanding on the neighborhood's history, Danny said that the street was frequented by pimps. "We had white boots with fur at the time that we couldn't keep in stock."Later, the store was expanded both forward (eliminating the window displays) and back. Today, Tip Top continues to have a loyal following, many from the next generation of shoppers. Having walked so many streets in Manhattan, Tip Top has been a wonderful reminder to me that the old world concept of customer service, with a warm staff who have been working with the Wassermans for years, still exists. This thinking was solidified when I asked the family why they never considered expanding to another location. The response from Danny simply stated that they never wanted to spread themselves too thin. "The reason for our success is because we're all here."It was really touching to see how strong the glue is that holds the Wasserman family together. I was not surprised when I learned that Lester, Margot and their parents live in the same building, a block over on 72nd Street - but on different floors. Yes, Tip Top has been an incredible success story in the world of mom and pop stores, but not everyone has had the great fortune of such a beautiful family relationship. When I expressed this sentiment to Danny, he replied, "Everyone says how fortunate I am to have my kids, and they're right." He then went on to say with a warm smile, "I mean, my son chooses to work with me six days a week." Lester shook his head in agreement and responded, "And I am lucky to have the best possible teacher to educate me."
“We are beer nerds, not beer snobs.” That is how Bo Bogle, the general manager of Gebhard’s Beer Culture, and Peter Malfatti, its beverage director, would describe the wood-furnished, cozy bar and restaurant that they opened in the summer of 2016, featuring various local and foreign artisanal beers on tap. The people behind Gebhard’s Beer Culture - the sister restaurant to Beer Culture on 45th Street - are as enthusiastic about beer as they are about educating customers.Because many of the beers that they offer are unknown to the general public, Gebhard’s will always work to find the draught that best suits each customer’s palate. If one feels like tasting several selections, the beer flight - a tray of four small glasses - is a good choice. Along with the continuously changing list of beers, the kitchen offers an ample menu of munchies, many from Belgium, as this is where owner Matt Gebhard spent time as a foreign exchange student.I was enchanted to discover how playful the space is: Upstairs, there is a games room, complete with a dartboard, shuffleboard, Hacky Sacks, and BulziBucket. The decorations throughout the bar and restaurant are eclectic, with various beer signs and novelty items covering the walls. At the front, I discovered a nook full of records, as well as a well-loved bicycle helmet. Bo and Ryan, the bartenders on duty, matched the vibe of the restaurant with their jovial nature as they poured beers for the Manhattan Sideways team. They set out glasses of citrusy TarTan Ale, a Central Waters Brewing Co beer, and a fresh, hoppy Southern Tier 2x Tangier. The two men knew exactly what to select for a hot day in the city and enjoyed tag-teaming descriptions of each beer and brand.Bo explained to us that the motivation behind Gebhard's Beer Culture is essentially a “passion for the local beer market.” With the recent proliferation of local breweries around the city and in the rest of the country, Bo feels that “individuals are making great beers and that should be acknowledged.” However, he believes it is not enough to simply have them on tap, but rather, the bartenders should teach customers about the local beer scene. Beer Culture’s objective is as much educational as it is to host many good nights with friends. When asked about the one thing that he would like customers to know about their new bar, Bo grinned and said: “the second beer always tastes better than the first.”
With its prime 72nd Street location, I have passed by Malachy's Donegal Inn almost daily, but had never stepped inside. I was always waiting for the day when I would be working on this street, so that I could go in with the Manhattan Sideways team and have a good time. And that is exactly what happened. "Looks can be deceiving, believe me," owner Bill Raftery immediately said when we popped in during the lunch hour in the middle of the week. He continued to speak lovingly and confidently of his pub, which has been in business since 1989. "This bar has the best pub food of any like it in the area," Bill stated. Looking around, we were pleased to find the old wooden bar packed from end to end. According to Bill, most of his lunch customers are crew guys from local theaters like The Beacon and Lincoln Center, and "they are loyal." Engaging in conversation with more than a dozen men and women, we learned a lot about Bill, and the warm environment that he has built.As Bill continued to serve people from behind the bar, he spoke of how much the neighborhood has changed since he purchased Malachy's. On Saint Patrick's Day, the area used to be blanketed in green bar-goers. "You could not move in this neighborhood the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. There's nothing like seeing them blow up those balloons." Hikes in parking and travel costs have drastically reduced business on both of those days, he lamented. Still, he brightened up when pointing to the crowded bar, and said how his regulars are certainly devoted customers. Quite busy, he told us to stop by for a drink sometime soon, and headed into the kitchen.