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12 West 21st Street
Koa 1 Chinese Japanese Flatiron

In a city that is known for making the most of space, I was surprised by how large Koa restaurant was. As with smaller eateries, however, Koa has managed to cleverly utilize each square inch. For example, as I walked in, Tenzin, the manager, pointed me towards the front lounge that functions as a sake bar with hot and cold Gekkeikan on tap. “Sometimes people just come in for sake,” he told me before leading me farther into the restaurant. Along the walls of the lounge were clever paintings depicting political candidates. Tenzin explained that every Friday, the artist comes in and holds a painting party where guests can observe him while dining.

Marveling at the unique décor in the main dining room, created by a Hawaiian designer, I glanced up to see chandeliers sitting in large bird cages, long driftwood branches, and ropes and pieces of string dangling from the high ceiling, which are meant to represent “sorba,” the noodles on which Koa prides itself. A filmed fashion runway was projected on the wall in black and white. Tenzin informed me that the owner, Keiko Ono Aoki, loves fashion. Keiko, who is the widow of Rocky Aoki, the former Olympic wrestler and founder of the Benihana chain of restaurants, had a hand in every aspect of Koa, which is named for her initials. “She wants it to be trendy-friendly,” Tenzin said of the vibe. Keiko often holds interesting events in the space, such as DJ nights on Thursday and live music sessions. She is hoping to put on a fashion show in the restaurant in the near future. “Keiko wants people to experience something different,” Tenzin said, adding, “This place is for entertainment purposes.”

I was impressed by how many different styles of seating were present: There were low Japanese-style seats, traditional dining chairs, and communal tables. Keiko clearly has put a lot of energy and creativity into the restaurant. “She is here all the time: this is her little baby,” Tenzin said with a smile.

Yuji Wakiya is Koa’s executive chef, but he spends most of his time in Japan now that the restaurant’s menu is set. He returns two or three times a year, however, and offers special tastings that result in "lines out the door." We met Chef Wakiya’s protégé, who brought out one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, the Soymilk Dan Dan Sorba. He shared with us that when Keiko was getting ready to open Koa, she was aware that ramen was going to be the "next big thing." Therefore, the restaurant's primary focus is on this noodle and broth dish. The Manhattan Sideways team tucked into the aromatic sorba and discovered that Tenzin was right when he said that it has “less broth and more toppings” than most ramen. Because the dish was made with soymilk imported from Japan rather than milk, it was fresh and light, with the perfect amount of spice on the pleasantly textured noodles. Tenzin assured me that though the emphasis is on ramen, Koa’s menu is varied. “No one wants hot ramen in the summer,” he pointed out, telling me about the Jya Jya Sorba Salad which is made with cold ramen, peanut butter, sesame puree, and Bang Bang Chicken. There is also a ramen served with parmesan cheese and walnuts. “It’s a fusion – we’re not traditional.”

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Koa 1 Chinese Japanese Flatiron
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More Japanese nearby

Lost Gem
Izakaya NoMad 1 Tapas and Small Plates Japanese Late Night Eats undefined

Izakaya NoMad

Today, NoMad – short for North of Madison Square Park – is one of Manhattan’s hottest neighborhoods, but Moku, co-owner of Izakaya NoMad, could not have foreseen that when location-scouting for his New York variation of a classic Japanese izakaya (a casual bar serving small plates that pair well with alcohol). Having owned an izakaya in Korea Town, Moku wanted to bring Japanese food to a region where it was sparse. Averi, a member of the Manhattan Sideways team, had an exceptional experience at Izakaya NoMad. Upon her arrival, she was greeted warmly by Moku and his team and quickly shown around the restaurant before the dinner crowd poured in. They started at the front of the house, where Moku pointed out the first section of a three-part custom mural painted by an illustrator from the School for Visual Arts, depicting NoMad infused with elements of Japanese pop culture like Godzilla and Astro Boy. From there, they moved into a long, narrow hall lined with cozy geometric booths, a long bar and open kitchen. Moku admitted that it would have been easier to have the kitchen stationed in the rear like most eateries, but he and co-founder Jay desired to be transparent about their high quality ingredients and also wanted guests to be able to interact with their culinarily well-versed yakitori chef (who coincidentally, bares the nickname Godzilla). Passing by the bar, Averi and her hosts drifted to the back of the dining room, where on an elevated platform, reconfigurable chairs rested under cubed light fixtures. Behind them, modern counters hid in an exposed brick cove with a graffiti reptilian tail tagged on the wall. Back at the front, Averi took a seat at a grand communal table wrapped in cool light from the descending sun and decorative paper lanterns overhead. Sliding doors reminiscent of shōji separate the area from the restaurant upon request, creating an ideal space for company dinners and birthday parties. Moku noted that Izakaya Nomad's design established five “unique spaces… like a maze. ” The bar was intimate and mature, the tables on the platform familial and familiar, the urban grotto youthful and hip, and the front room airy and conversation invoking. Once settled, Moku shared the novel-like menu with Averi, consisting of yakitori, sashimi, sushi, tataki, tempura, hot pots, wine, beer, and sake with informative descriptions for those who may be unfamiliar with Japanese cuisine. A waiter then brought three varieties of sake, and Moku gave Averi a brief lesson in the fermented rice alcohol. She learned that the intensity of flavor stems from how much the outer layer of each grain of rice is stripped away. For example, the harder junmai sake polishes less of the grain – only about thirty percent - so it had a strong rice taste, which Moku claims is popular with young people these days. The junmai ginjo sake takes away about forty percent of the grain, resulting in a subtle sweetness, while the junmai daiginjo removes fifty percent, leaving a “smooth” creamy texture and “less hangover. ” The junmai daiginjo was Averi's favorite of the three, crisp and refreshing with just enough punch. Moku assured her that if sake is not a guest’s "cup of tea, " an impressive list of both beer and wine are available. After drinks, Moku reviewed the custom tasting menu that had been prepared for Averi's visit. With lobster tail, soft fried tofu, sizzling butamoyasi (bacon, beansprouts onions, and chives), uni (sea urchin), and sushi, the menu was reflective of the izakaya’s overall project: to apply the best parts of the Japanese izakaya experience to a “New York market. ” In fact, Izakaya NoMad was the first izakaya around to call themselves a Japanese gastropub. For this reason, the fare served at NoMad is not exactly conventional, as it includes items like sushi and ramen to meet the demand of its clientele. Additionally, the restaurant finds creative ways to incorporate less common snacks like chicken gizzard, battered, fried, and seasoned to be accessible to the average New Yorker. When the colorful, steaming plates began to arrive at the table, it seemed like they would never stop. What a feast. The enoki mushrooms wrapped in smoked bacon, grilled chicken skewers, and the fatty tuna sushi were all delightful; though the sweet “rocket tsukune” (free range chicken meatball), juicy beef short rib yakitori, and the smoky hamachi tataki (seared yellow tail) really stole the show. Averi was surprised when Moku revealed that many of the elements do not require intense seasoning: at izakaya NoMad, they “don’t overdo things” and like to let the fresh ingredients speak for themselves. Despite the quantity of dishes, nothing was repetitive. Each item showcased its own distinct medley of delicious flavors. Incredibly humble and hospitable, Moku and Jay are adamant about focusing on the food, not themselves. While they aim to rival the product of a five-star celebrity establishment, they seek to leave pretention behind, insisting they would never judge customers for how they use chopsticks or eat sushi. “As long as you enjoy, that’s the main point, ” said Moku, “that’s our philosophy. ” Providing “an alternative to any traditional beer experience in Manhattan” with an “upscale look but casual environment, ” Izakaya NoMad has set out to be a safe, social gathering place where food, company, and alcohol can all be enjoyed without inhibition. From Averi's experience, we can verify that is certainly the case.

More places on 21st Street

Lost Gem
Merakia 1 Mediterranean Greek undefined


Merakia occupies the space that housed Kat & Theo from 2015-2017 - and while the restaurant maintains the same ownership as before, it also has a different mission. The modern Greek steakhouse prides itself on its meats and classic seafood items, while maintaining a classy, hip atmosphere in its cavernous space on 21st Street. “We built a new team… and a new vision, ” managing partner James Paloumbis shared with the Manhattan Sideways team when he spoke of the switch from Kat & Theo. He then went on to highlight Merakia’s differences from other Greek restaurants. “It’s not white and blue like every other place in New York City. Our menu is not the copy paste of any other place. ” The menu is heavy on steaks and seafood, boasting their signature lamb on the spit ("the only restaurant in the city to do so") while, surprisingly, offering some robust meat-free options as well. “Everything is farm to table, we use fresh ingredients, [and] we make everything from scratch on a daily basis. ” James told us that part of his mission is to bring back the adventure of going out to eat, a phenomenon he has noticed declining over the years. “People don’t like to go out anymore just to eat. You can eat at home, you can eat down the street, you can order your meal online. But to get an experience of nice service, some nice flavors, nice music, nice drinks - it’s worth your while to go out again. ” Husband and wife team behind Kat & Theo - Renee and Andreas Typaldos - seem to have orchestrated a smooth transition from their previous restaurant. As their past executive chef, Paras Shah, believed, "there should be a movie written about the couple's romantic backstory and that he “couldn’t have worked for better folks. ” Andy is originally from Greece, and the restaurant was named after his parents, Katerina and Theodosios. Andy came to New York on a scholarship from Columbia and met Renee, who is from the Bronx. He took her out on a first date “with holes in his shoes and with no winter jacket, ” according to Renee. She added, “The romantic, poetic way people get together. ” Today, they are paying homage to Andy's Greek heritage and according to James, “People have to trust their stomachs and their palates with a restaurant, so that’s what we’re trying to do here. Trust us - our food is fresh, our food is made with care, and we love what we do. ”

More Chinese nearby

Lost Gem
The Limelight   Jue Lan Club 1 Chinese Dim Sum Seafood undefined

The Limelight - Jue Lan Club

At the Jue Lan Club, two very compelling but completely unrelated stories lie within its foundation. The first story is that of the Jue Lan Society, a cluster of Chinese artists in the early 1930s who shared a “disaffection of conventionality and a devotion to the avant-garde. ” The name literally means “determination to create change, ” and it is in that spirit and in honor of those artists that chef Oscar Toro’s restaurant is called the Jue Lan Club. The second story concerns the place where this new, elegant restaurant is located: an eighteenth century Episcopal church that once housed the Limelight Disco, one of the hottest and most infamous nightclubs in New York since it was opened in November of 1983. First a disco and rock club, the Limelight became a popular venue for techno and goth music in the 1990s, when it also got the reputation as a drug dealing center. After numerous re-openings following police raids, the Limelight finally closed its doors in 2007. Since then, the entire space has been through several iterations, but as of 2016, the Jue Lan Club resides in the charming space with its entrance on 20th Street. The restaurant itself is, in one word, impressive. With its brick walls, artwork, and stained glass windows, it is not only a place to savor contemporary twists on Chinese cuisine, but also to get the party started. It has several rooms - including the Warhol Room, the 1932 Room, and the Alley - each with a different atmosphere, drink, and food selection to suit different moods and night plans.