The blending of Cuban and Chinese culture at Calle Dao is evident from the moment one steps into the restaurant in which Cuban cigar boxes and fresco walls neighbor Chinese vases and figurines. When we stopped by, we had the chance to sit down to chat with owner Marco Britti, who is also responsible for the innovative interior decoration. He told us that the décor is meant to “transport you back to Havana. ” With meticulous attention to each detail including a gate patterned exactly like a traditional style of door in Havana, and intricately distressed wooden chairs, the space is remarkably cohesive. Marco’s own life has been somewhat of a fusion as well. Originally from Naples, Italy, he moved to New York in 1996. He told us, “as an immigrant I left Italy to go to New York. So I know what it is like to leave everything behind, try something out and make a business out of it. ” While pursuing a music career – Marco plays the drums – he also worked part time in restaurants. In 1999 he took a trip to Cuba, and ended up living in the Chinatown of Havana for nine months. While there, he learned about the wave of Cuban-Chinese restaurants and was struck by the Chinese influence on the cooking culture. Upon returning to New York, he found that there had not been much development of Cuban-Chinese fusion in the city, which furthered his interest in the restaurant industry. He went on to open his first restaurant, Cubana Café, and later Favela Cubana, both of which presented dishes from different cultures side-by-side. The complete fusion was only realized when he went on to open Calle Dão in the late summer of 2014, partnering with executive chef Humberto Guallpa. Marco said that his situation now is not something he would have ever predicted, and remarks that “it’s interesting to see how you can cross paths in life like that. All of a sudden you are doing something else. ”
Former bankers, husband and wife team Xian Zhang and Yiming Wang, certainly have found a successful niche on 37th Street. If we had not already read that the interior of Cafe China was decorated to resemble Shanghai during the 1930s, we might have guessed that we were having lunch in a 1950s American diner replete with red vinyl chairs and a vintage mint colored mini fridge next to the bar. Once we sat down at our table, however, and had an opportunity to further explore the restaurant, the classy 1930s Shanghai elements became clear. There is a beautiful chandelier twinkling in the back room, blue velvet covering the quaint booths on one side of the restaurant, and Chinese characters decorating some of the prints that hang on the walls. Once past the intriguing decor, we began to concentrate on the menu. The Sideways team ordered some of our favorite staples including wonton soup, vegetable pot stickers, cold sesame noodles and pork dumplings - all perfectly prepared. But it was the Ma Po Tofu dish that stole the show. Having recently learned of this delectable dish, I was eager to try it, and what better place than at a Michelin star restaurant. I was promised it would not be made too spicy for me. It certainly had a kick, but I was able to appreciate the various flavors of the dish and loved it.
After having eaten at Barbes, I was eager to check out Omar Balouma's other restaurant. Stopping to notice the beautiful, ornately carved front door, we learned that it was shipped directly from Morocco, and functions as a literal and figurative portal to North Africa. Inside, a vague smell of hookah smoke hangs in the air amidst beautifully crafted walls done in a soft pastel-hued Venetian plaster. The front of the restaurant is for dining where the menu offers smaller Mediterranean-style plates flavored with Moroccan spices. The back hookah room might be the real star. Benches line the large square room, along with colorful seat cushions while tapestry-esque sheets hang overhead. Saturday nights come alive with belly dancers and music is played by Rachid Halibal, a native of Morocco.
Neon lights, on the back wall, greeted us as we entered Trademark Grind, the “boutique coffee bar” serving Sweetleaf Coffee Roasters from Brooklyn. In this quaint space, we were treated to excellent cups of hot chocolate, perfect on this winter day. A few minutes later, the PR manager, Matt, greeted us and invited the Manhattan Sideways team to follow him through a small entryway where we discovered Trademark Taste, a cozy, dimly lit restaurant... a safe little hideaway in the middle of bustling Midtown Manhattan. Opened in the spring of 2016, by In Good Company Hospitality, Trademark Taste & Grind serves a mixed clientele, from guests at the attached hotel and the pre-show crowd from Madison Square Garden to those looking for a unique weekend bar scene. The menu is impeccably curated by culinary director, Jeff Haskell, to featured favorites like Burrata and Knots and Tuna Poke. However, with its dark, mellow colors, graffiti motifs and hints of industrial flair, Trademark is all about the space. The walls are white and black with accents of red. Intimate hidden booths circle a large center bar, the anchor of the room. As soon as I took a look around, I wanted to settle into one of these booths for the evening. When I repeated this to Matt, he replied, “People tend to not want to leave. ”
Built originally in the mid-1800s, Sniffen Court encompasses a small alleyway running between two quaint rows of brick buildings. With vegetation lending further tranquility to the scene, a wrought-iron gate protects it from the public. The buildings, which were once stables, have now been repurposed into commercial, residential and artistic spaces. Next door, the historic and private Amateur Comedy Club hosts shows performed by, and for, members. Sniffen Court now appears on the National Register of Historic Places.