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.
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.”