On more than one occasion, as we walked 45th, a long line snaked out of BentOn, a small takeout eatery. This tiny gem provides authentic Japanese bento boxes to the lunch crowd in Midtown, a welcome break from traditional American fare. When striking up a conversation with a Japanese businessman who had stopped by for lunch, he shared his opinion about the food, saying that he felt it had been modified a bit for American palettes, but was as close to authentic as he had tried in Manhattan. The bento boxes vary per day and are served alongside their specialty drinks.
Aburiya Kinnosuke itself seems to be a portal away from the midtown bustle into a quiet and elegant Tokyo restaurant. Seating is available in the main dining room, around the grill, and in small private rooms - one of which features tatami mats, where guests can have a more traditional Japanese experience. Focusing on the izakaya style of dining, the meal is usually comprised of several small dishes shared among a table (comparable to the Spanish tradition of tapas). The menu is extensive, featuring over 100 plates, most of which are based on robata grilling, another Japanese culinary tradition in which skewers are slow-grilled over hot charcoal. Arriving in time for lunch, two of our team were the eager enthusiasts willing to try the specials of the day - dishes prepared in limited quantities each afternoon. On this particular day, there was very fresh Bluefin tuna collar, followed by the Aburiya set – a dish that featured simmered fish, washu beef and sashimi – and then everyone's favorite, the bentou box set, filled with a combination of Japanese small dishes.
Dainobu is a small Japanese market filled to the brim with aisles of colorful packages of food. Fridges along the side walls house the day's selection of bento boxes prepared fresh in a small kitchen at the back of the store. When we walked 47th street, Maria and Jasphy, two of the summer interns, loved browsing the aisles, impressed by its authenticity – "Dainobu is the real deal, " they said. The girls picked up a daifuku each and left happy with their sweet treats.
This three-tiered observation deck at the top of Rockefeller Center offers an unobstructed 360-degree panoramic view of New York and beyond. Its view is somewhat different from that of the Empire State Building as one is at eye-level with surrounding skyscrapers, rather than gazing down upon them. Opened in 1933, it was designed to resemble the upper decks of a 1930s ocean liner. When Top of the Rock reopened in 2005 – after having been closed since 1986 – my family was one of the first to ascend to the 70th floor, as it held special memories for my parents when they were dating back in the 1940s. It has since become a favorite tourist stop for me when out-of-town guests are visiting. With its mezzanine photo exhibit and other items of interest on the way to the top, what a phenomenal place to wow people of any age and to begin their journey through the side streets of Manhattan.
Toloache, a bustling Mexican bistro on 50th street, shares its name with the legendary Toloache flower. According to a myth in Mexican culture, the flower can be brewed into a love potion - if someone tastes the drink once, he or she will always return for another sip. The restaurant’s food and drinks have the same effect: Many people who eat there once return time and time again. General Manager Jorge shared a story about his friend from Japan who visited Toloache on the first night of a weeklong vacation in Manhattan. He ended up returning every day that week and then again every year during his annual visit to the city. Toloache on 50th is the first of many restaurants opened in New York by chef-owner Julian Medina. Chef Julian grew up in Mexico City, where he was inspired by the home cooking of his father and grandfather. He was originally brought to New York by Chef Richard Sandoval, who appointed him as Chef de Cuisine at Sandoval’s Maya. He went on to gain experience at distinguished restaurants and graduated from the French Culinary Institute with recognition. Today, Chef Julian owns seven of his own restaurants in the city and has been featured in several publications, including Men’s Journal, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. He has appeared on shows such as "Iron Chef" and "Beat Bobby Flay. " His impressive background is reflected in the success and distinctive menu of his “first child, ” Toloache. Julian designed Toloache’s extraordinary menu to have something for everyone – the wide range of dishes include both vegetarian and gluten free options. He prides himself on using only the freshest of ingredients, whether it is white truffles or chapulines (dried grasshoppers imported from Oaxaca). These crunchy critters have gained quite a bit of media attention, including a feature on "The Today Show. " The kitchen brought out the Tacos Chapulines for the Manhattan Sideways team to photograph, and we had to admit that the insects were made to look very appetizing. We were also presented with the diverse Trio de Guacamoles, which allowed us to sample three varieties of the dip: the familiar traditional guacamole; the Frutas Guacamole, which incorporates fruit instead of typical ingredients (pomegranate, mango, and apple instead of tomato and Thai Basil instead of cilantro); and the Rojo guacamole, made with chipotle. Several of us went on to sample the Quesadilla de Huitlacoche y Trufas (made with fresh truffles), The Baja Tilapia Pescado, and the braised short rib, served with quinoa and carrots. Each dish exemplified Chef Julian’s inventiveness and ability to put small, flavor-enhancing twists on typical Mexican cuisine. The drinks were equally impressive, including Julian’s favorite “Chef’s Selection Margarita, ” made with his hand-picked bottle of Herradura Tequila. The bartender mixed a few cocktails for us to photograph and taste, including the refreshing “De la Calle, ” made with cucumber and jalapeno; the spicy “Mezcalita de Pina”; and the signature “Toloache, ” made with hibiscus and blueberries. The food is amazing and the drinks are fantastic, but what really keeps so many guests coming back is Toloache’s dedication to quality service. As Jorge informed us, “Our goal is to make every guest feel at home. They are our friends. ” Each of the servers have their own style, creating unique, yet equally enjoyable dining experiences. Guests are able to experience Toloache in a completely new light from one day to the next just by sitting at a different server’s table. It was event manager Temple who summed the restaurant up perfectly: "Toloache feels like a family – like you’re walking into Little Mexico. ”
Fabio Hakill, the eponymous chef and owner of Fabio Cucina, moved from Rome to New York in the mid 1990s where he quickly made a name for himself as an accomplished chef. After eighteen years as a co-owner at Piccolo Fiore on East 44th Street, Fabio decided to go it alone early in 2014. At his new Italian restaurant, Fabio is enjoying experimenting with a varied menu. His specialties include the Fettuccini al Fabio - made with veal, mushrooms and truffles, and an array of risottos. He told me, however, that he is willing to prepare virtually any dish that a customer requests. After stopping by during their busy lunch hour one day, Fabio invited us back in the evening to sample some of his signature dishes. As we walked across 52nd Street to the west side, we were dreaming about the Italian food that awaited us when we would circle back to the east side later in the evening. Weary from our long day, we eagerly took a seat near the wide windows to observe others walking by, while we indulged in the fresh bread basket, chilled white wine, some outstanding appetizers, a seafood risotto and a pasta dish. It was an ideal end to a very long day on 52nd.
When we visited the new Bistango at the end of the summer of 2014, located in The Kimberly Hotel, Chef Blessings Strange and staff member William Turbert were testing out a dish to add to their menu - grilled watermelon with snippets of mint and deep fried fennel, topped with goat cheese and a balsamic reduction. They put out three additional small plates at the bar, encouraging us to taste and weigh in. It was a refreshing pick-me-up for each of us, but little did we realize that there would be several more dishes headed our way. While Chef Blessings began food prep, we had the pleasure of meeting both Anthony Avellino, the manager - part of the Bistango family for twenty-two years - and Marc Mirbod, one of the owners, who first chimed in describing Anthony as being "the real salt of the earth kind of guy. " and then went on to give us some insight into this recently established location. Fred Manocherian, owner of The Kimberly Hotel, was intrigued by the eleven-year-old gluten-free program at Bistango on 29th and Third Avenue and invited the team to open a restaurant on 50th. According to Marc and Anthony, the concept behind the Bistango restaurants is "very straightforward. " They want to offer a moderately priced seasonal Italian menu with uncomplicated, locally sourced food. When they joined forces with Mr. Manocherian, the goal was to "bring what was successful on 29th to their new location. " They have adopted a system where there is absolutely no cross-contamination between gluten and gluten-free meals. Chef Blessings told us that perhaps the most rewarding aspect of working in the restaurant is to watch the pleasure on people's faces when they are enjoying a bowl of pasta or a pizza for the first time in years, having never been anywhere before that can serve them a great Italian gluten-free meal. Once again Marc weighed in praising Chef Blessings, "He is the brains and heart behind the menu. "While chatting, Chef Blessings continued to dish out amazing food for us to sample: A simple salad with romaine lettuce was perfectly dressed and topped with marcona almonds; an adventurous Linguine Deniro - squid ink pasta mixed with swordfish, cherry tomatoes, herbs, and a light sauce of white wine and olive oil; and perhaps the best burrata I had tried all summer long. Blessings told us it is delivered fresh from Maplebrook Farm in Vermont. Served at room temperature, the cream oozed out from the center and onto a bed of heirloom tomatoes, fresh basil, toasted pumpkin seeds, white pepper, and balsamic vinegar powder. Needless to say, we devoured everything. It was then that Mr. Personality, William Turbert, fired up the pizza oven, eager for us to taste the gluten-free pizza dough his teammate Jeff Walawski has spent years perfecting. William described himself as "an Italian boy from Brooklyn with the accent and personality to prove it. " As he entertained and utterly charmed us, he was simultaneously making two pizzas for tasting: a margarita with buffalo mozzarella and heirloom baby tomatoes, and another made with La Quercia prosciutto and their homemade ricotta. Until William reminded us, we forgot that we were eating a gluten-free dough. That's how good it was. The simple burgundy and dark wood decor, the dozens of antique model planes from Mr. Manocherian's personal collection hanging from the ceiling, the intimate size of the dining room, the open view into the kitchen and of course the impeccable food made for an outstanding experience. The Manhattan Sideways team had an unexpected and heavenly meal, but equal to the food was the attention that we received from all the players at Bistango.