Upon entering Sant Ambroeus, our senses were flooded with the tantalizing smell of buttery pastry. While the other Manhattan Sant Ambroeus restaurants provide ample seating and more extensive menus, Sant Ambroeus on 61st Street, is a simple cafe, serving exceptional espresso, paninis, bread and European sodas. On a street with many sit-down places, the cafe is the perfect spot to grab breakfast, eat a quick lunch, or sneak a heavenly Millesfoglie, a traditional Italian puff pastry with cream.
There are many hidden gems to be discovered on the side streets of Manhattan, but the beginning of my walk on 61st might trump any that I have had thus far. For it was here that I was suddenly convinced that I had stepped into a time portal. Nestled between the skyscrapers that perch along the East River is a stone house dating back to the eighteenth century with a glorious garden (even in the middle of winter) tucked behind it. "Eighteenth Century" may be a bit misleading, since the building, which was built as a carriage house to go with a central mansion, was constructed in 1799.Originally named the Abigail Adams Smith Museum, as this is where she and her husband owned the land on which it was built, it was turned into a "day hotel" in 1826. This was a popular kind of institution that possibly resembled a country club more than an inn. With the rise of the middle class, centers for leisure were popping up all over the island. The city proper mainly existed below 14th Street, causing 61st to be considered a vacation getaway. Though the Mount Vernon Hotel is the only day hotel left standing, at one point in time there were numerous similar ones dotting both rivers.In 1833, the building returned to being a private residence. During the following century, it changed hands multiple times, once even being used as a soup kitchen, until it officially opened as a museum in 1939 in the capable hands of the Colonial Dames of America. To this day, their overall mission continues to be to preserve and teach America's history.The Museum also hosts guests and events of many different kinds: One of their largest affairs is Washington's Birthday Ball, but they also host pie-making workshops, school programs (which are often booked solid for three months at a time), and public events in the auditorium next door.
Descending down Scalinatella's ("little stairway") steps felt like traveling back in time as we entered a magical, underground grotto. Although it was a late winter afternoon, there was a perfect shaft of light shining down from the street onto the glistening display of luscious-looking grapes, blueberries, and strawberries. The sweet scent of the berries was a winning welcome to a stunning discovery below 61st Street. The decor was classic, as we were surrounded by a three dimensional still life that Cezanne would have loved to have painted: baskets of impossibly red tomatoes, bouquets of orchids, pussy willows, and, of course, bottles of wine.The feeling of entering a timeless wine cellar was made easier to comprehend when we learned that the building is 145 years old. Apparently, some twenty years ago when Luigi Ruso was first building his restaurant, he watched as the workers chipped away at the cement and glass walls until they hit the original brick. He knew he had something special and chose to leave the raw beginnings down below in tact. In front of the kitchen, bricks have been removed, putting the chefs partly on display, as if the diners were peeking at them through a secret chink in a wall, while the bar seems to be chiseled out of the side of the cave.The food is as classic as the ambience, with Scalinatella's specialties being pasta and fresh fish. Diego, our server told us that he has been working along side Luigi for decades, as the two met at Il Mulino on West 3rd Street. While preparing and plating the food, he told us that he cooks much of his pasta dishes right in front of diners. "We do everything – any pasta you want." Some of us sampled a soft and buttery dish of amorini pasta blackened with squid ink and liberally decorated with shrimp and lobster. Diego also paraded a feast of fish past us, including Branzino, Dover Sole, and more lobster. While listening to stories from several members of the restaurant's team, we learned that every night the dining room is filled with clientele that have been frequenting this hidden romantic gem for years and years.
While sitting comfortably in the lounge area of The Pierre Hotel, I literally witnessed the conception of a "pop-up." A table and chairs were being rolled out and within minutes set up elegantly with a black tablecloth and rose petals strewn across the center. The staff at Two East were preparing for their Tuesday evening Social Club. Engaging in conversation with executive chef Ashfer Biju, head pastry chef Michael Mignano, Director of Marketing, Emily Venugopal and singer, Claire Khodara, they each offered their personal connection to this very special evening as it was getting ready to unfold.One might think of it as "unusual," seated at this table, Emily stated, but she assured me that I would feel like I was in my own little world, elevated - propped up on comfortable bar level chairs surrounded by other foodies - where I would be able to watch and listen to Claire, the performer of the evening, while others sat below quietly enjoying a drink, some appetizers and pleasant background live music.The concept behind Chef Ashfer's Social Club is purely to bring people and food together in the best possible setting. His feeling is that people work hard and have little time to socialize outside of the office. Inside the Pierre's lounge area, men and women are encouraged to treat themselves to a mystery night out either solo, with a date, or, of course, book the entire communal table for twelve. No matter the choice, diners are promised to be taken on a culinary adventure. For $95.00, the kitchen rolls out fourteen different courses with a cocktail to kick it off and wine pairings throughout the meal. The best part, however, was each time the two chefs popped out from the kitchen to explain what we were tasting, what inspired the dish, and to educate us on the wonders of curry and other spices.I enjoyed listening to Ashfer's extraordinary stories of travel around the world. He has cooked with a multitude of chefs who exposed him to tastes and flavors from Malaysia to the Maltese Islands, and from the Middle East to the Maldives. I was, thus, eager to participate in that evening's "Two E Returns East," a themed meal accenting ingredients from China, Japan and India. Ashfer was born into a family of restaurateurs. His father continues to run two dining spots in Southeast Asia, but it was his grandfather who appears to have had a profound influence on him. Despite his efforts to convince other family members not to go into this business, after speaking with Ashfer for over an hour, I realized that it was this man that instilled the spark of travel and the love of food in him from a very early age while growing up in India.Apparently, the Pierre has a wondrous way of luring its chefs back, as is the case with Michael Mignano, who worked in the hotel's kitchen from 1998 until 2005. In 2011, he heeded the call to return as head pastry chef. For those years in between, Michael worked with the creme de la creme in the dessert world, appeared on Food Network shows, and ran his own, highly successful bakery in Port Washington, NY.As Ashfer referred to Michael, "He is my trump card in the kitchen." Listening to the two men finish each other's sentences gave me deep insight into how well their relationship works. Together, they explained how they choose not to follow trends, but rather prefer to "create the trend, themselves." They went on to say that it is always a chef's goal to be recognized, but that most do not realize what goes into preparing an exceptional meal. Yes, it is a science, but to these two men it is truly an art - one that takes a lot to pioneer day in and day out. They then described themselves as "artists of the senses - all five of them."When discussing what influenced Michael most to pursue a career in cooking, he explained that he grew up in Queens, where food and family were at the core of his existence. He continued on by saying that he had a huge diversity of friends. "Since the age of five, I went to people's homes who were from Vietnam, South Africa, Europe - you name it." He learned to try everyone's cooking and to appreciate not only the magic that goes into every dish, but also the passion. Today, Michael said that he continues to incorporate slight nuances from his own childhood experiences into each of the delectable desserts he imagines.Participating in our discussion was Claire. I would shortly have the pleasure of listening to her melodic voice while I indulged in course after course of some of the best vegetarian food (specially prepared for me) I have ever had. Although Claire only began her singing engagements at The Pierre in early 2015, she has already established her own following including a large showing of friends and family who come by to support her.Claire has spent a considerable amount of time flying back and forth between the U.S. and England, where she went to university and began her singing career. Moving back to New York at one point, she made it quite far on season nine's American Idol, and then, as she stated, "I sang at weddings and did a lot of the national anthem singing hoping to become a rockstar." It was not until she returned to England, met her future husband, and was, ultimately, recognized by London's most elite, iconic clubs, including the exclusive Annabel's, that her career took off. Claire, once again, resides in New York, but continues to fly across the pond to perform in London. Upon her arrival back in the States, she put together an album, which Sony described as "country jazz," though she prefers to call her music "soul pop."When I asked Claire if she would be able to simply state her mission to me as a singer, she thoughtfully replied, "I honestly want to spread peace. I want to make people feel calm and relaxed." She stopped herself and asked, "Does that sound dorky?" After listening to her for three straight hours, my answer is, without a doubt, no. Claire's voice was a beautiful backdrop to an evening filled with interesting company, phenomenal food and two extraordinary chefs.Special note: When Claire was searching for someone to "dress" her for her nightly performances on stage, she turned to Zac Posen, who designed the dress that her mother wore to her wedding. Claire said it is such fun to have ten outfits arrive each week from Zac that she can select from - sadly she must return them afterwards - but, in the meantime, she does look stunning as she is a tall magnificent woman, both inside and out. It was interesting to learn a bit about Zac Posen - this renowned designer who, although an international star with his classic, chic clothing, has his roots right here in Brooklyn.Two Manhattan Sideways team members, Tom and Olivia, returned to the Two E Lounge for a special event towards the end of 2015. Diwali is the Hindu festival of lights that occurs every autumn in the northern hemisphere. They found the space to be completely transformed from when we were last there listening to Claire Khodara sing: flower petals, chrysanthemum heads, and candles covered every available space and a tower with cubby holes filled with Indian delicacies occupied the center. The two told me that they have never seen such exquisite saris as the ones worn by the guests. Together with a room filled with guests, Tom and Olivia dined on small shot glasses full of goat cheese, beet, and orange slices as well as rock shrimp with tamarind aioli while listening to the chill sounds of Sa, a group that performs music with Indian root melodies. There was a “Tawa and Chaat” station where cooks served up lamb kebabs, green pea samosas, and more. On the other side of the room, an appetizer table was set up with traditional Indian food reinterpreted, including lamb koftas, biryani bowls, and kulchas. Ashfer proudly told Tom and Olivia that his sous chef, Manjit Manohar, had a large part in the menu for the evening. As Tom was taking a shot of Ashfer, Manjit, and Michael, the plates of mouth-watering Indian-inspired desserts were brought out, decorated with gold flecks. This was the Pierre’s first attempt at hosting a Diwali celebration, but we have no doubt that the beautiful décor, and visibly happy guests will inspire them to continue this tradition in 2016.
Suzanne Newman had always been interested in fashion and design. She began sewing on her parent's sewing machine as a child in South Africa - first teaching herself how to sew clothes for dolls, and then for herself. She began her career in London at a department store, where she stayed for ten years before moving to New York City. As a single mother, Suzanne began making hats under the tutelage of Josephine Trippoli in 1985. Two years later, she opened up her own boutique on Madison Avenue. For fifteen years, she developed her creative instincts and gained an enviable list of followers. In 2002, she moved to her current 61st Street location, bringing her regular customers with her, while simultaneously acquiring a host of new ones. With returning clients from the 80s as well as a host of younger customers, Suzanne continues to enjoy the range in hat requests that she receives.Suzanne finds inspiration in the world around her, often looking towards magazine, theaters, museums, and fashion trends. Since the vast majority of the hats she creates are custom made, she considers the settings the hat might be worn in, personality of the client, and, of course, the client's wishes. For bridal parties, Suzanne can very easily design head wear based on a swatch of a dress. With remarkable attention to detail, there are casual hats for simple occasions and then some extraordinary and extravagant ones for the Kentucky Derby or even England’s grand millinery event of the year, The Royal Ascot. While Suzanne especially loves “hat events” where women often want a hat that “goes all out,” she believes that a women’s head piece is important no matter the occasion. “A woman looks good in the right hat - the right hat brings out her personality and it’s a form of expression. Express your whimsy!”Located in the back of the stunning shop is where each step of the hat-making process is completed. Inside, the workshop is piled with all sorts of materials, including a variety of fabrics, straws, and feathers. Most amazing were the hats in progress, including a fascinator in the shape and colors of a coy fish, a shiny blue Spanish-style hat, and a helmet-like pink hat that could have come right out of the 1960s. The designers are constantly on the lookout for new materials to incorporate into their designs, such as 3D printing, and they are always experimenting with new ways to prepare and recycle the materials they have on hand . Suzanne told us that she is especially pleased to have her business be in New York City, as she is often able to source her materials locally. “We have a remarkable amount to choose from, I think the best in the world.”While chatting with some of the staff, one of the first things that they shared with us was that Suzanne has her hand in every project. If one of them is feeling creatively challenged - not sure if something is working properly - or simply looking for feedback, they turn to Suzanne. And, whenever Suzanne and her assistants go out together, they wear samples of their work. Not only do they make a statement, but it allows them to determine if they need to reinforce parts of a hat to combat the wind, or tell clients to duck low when exiting cars to spare long feathers. There is something beautiful about imagining that scene – these exquisite pieces of art being worn by the people who can best appreciate them.