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.
The name of this tavern that opened in the fall of 2013 pays homage to Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of Irish novelist James Joyce's Ulysses. Each year, on June 16th, the date on which Ulysses takes place, the pub hosts a large 'Bloomsday' party, complete with a dramatic reading of excerpts from the book with local theater artists. The tavern's namesake is also evident in the decor, featuring Joyce memorabilia alongside literary quotes on the walls. While chatting with owner, Noel Donovan, I learned that he had been the general manager for nine years at Eamonn's Bar & Grill on 45th Street, before deciding to take the plunge and open his own Irish tavern.
When legendary bartender Doug Quinn parted ways with his longtime employer P. J. Clark's a few blocks north, he marched right over to 53rd Street and began creating what he describes as "an iconic New York saloon restaurant. " Doug's goal is to make Hudson Malone, named after his two young boys, the kind of neighborhood spot where people can feel at home. Whether the customer is twenty-one or ninety, "I like people to mingle with one another, " Doug told me. His hope is to build something that he believes New York lacks at the moment. A big part of this is Doug himself, as I witnessed while visiting. His warm greeting to familiar faces and new customers was genuine and charming as he quickly ran behind the bar to fix them their favorite drinks. It is also in the small details of Hudson Malone, particularly the decor, where Doug has collected photographs of New York sports legends including the 1938 Yankees, a twinkling jukebox by the front of the bar, and a chalkboard displaying Quinn's Laws - "They're all things your Grandma should have taught you, " Doug demurs. I was particularly drawn to the upstairs room, which has its own private entrance and features an intricately carved nineteenth-century center-piece serving as the backdrop to the bar. This is just one more example of the classic saloon decor. In addition to a wide selection of beers and cocktails, Hudson Malone offers a traditional American menu held to Doug's high standards. "I like putting on a show every night, " Doug excitedly told me. "I want the food coming out of my kitchen to cause people to turn their heads. "
Guy Vaknin and his wife Tali opened Beyond Sushi in July of 2012 with the goal of producing healthy, beautiful and earth-conscious food. After learning of the depletion of fish in our oceans – not to mention the health benefits of a meatless diet – Guy set out to be the “first to pioneer the fish-less sushi movement. ” He views “sushi as a vessel that carries the perfect amount of flavor to just grab it in one bite. ” He also praises sushi for its consistency, which gives him room to play around in creating interesting and perfect balances of vegetable's flavors and colors. When describing his extensive background in the restaurant industry, Guy told us, “I had a dream to cook since I was young. I’ve always loved food. ” He grew up on a Kibbutz in Israel - and came to New York after serving in the Israeli army - to help out in his father’s restaurant. He went on to work at numerous other restaurants in New York doing every possible position, and after a brief dalliance with computer engineering, returned to the food world by studying at the Institute of Culinary Education. Fresh out of culinary school, Guy became the executive chef at his father’s kosher catering company. When a request for a sushi station popped up, and knowing that meat and fish are restricted in some areas of the Jewish world, he decided he wanted to create something “cool and innovative - and not fish. ” It took two years to develop his vegetarian sushi, but after selling out at the Vegetarian Food Festival two years in a row, Guy decided to open a business on 14th street. Within three months - working solely with the help of his sushi chef - the growing popularity of his beautiful, healthy, and delicious food quickly enabled him to expand into the thriving company that Beyond Sushi is today. One of Guy’s main goals is to balance sustainability and accessibility to encourage people to choose the healthy option of Beyond Sushi, and the passion that sustains this goal is his creativity. Even now that he has grown Beyond Sushi into a consistently expanding company, Guy still spends around fifty percent of his time cooking, and loves adding new dishes to his menu. He thinks of his business expansion in terms of community impact and wants to be “as big as possible. "
Everything at Norma Kamali's eponymous store feels distinctive, from the layout to the designs of the clothes. In the years since the designer opened her first shop on 53rd street in 1968, she has carved out a style all her own. Her flagship store's aesthetic is striking - white walls, floor-to-ceiling mirrors, and fluorescent lighting that feels intentional and welcoming. Racks are placed at different locations throughout the store, showcasing Norma's three core collections - Activewear, Swimwear, and Kamali Kulture. The first includes Norma's iconic sweatsuits, which revolutionized women's activewear when the line appeared in 1984. The Swimwear collection prominently features the Bill Mio bathing suit, a rucked, old Hollywood-esque one-piece. Finally, the Kamali Kulture line was created so that a wider variety of women could enjoy Norma's signature designs; every item in the line is under one hundred dollars. The store also features sunglasses, including Norma's signature cat-eye shades. While being given a personal tour by Marissa, a representative of the Norma Kamali Brand, we learned that Norma's flagship location houses the Wellness Cafe, where women are invited to take a break from their shopping, sit down, and help themselves to some green tea and popcorn - sprinkled with Norma's own line of olive oil. On display is a "curation of products Norma loves, " including health snacks, supplements and weights. Marissa went on to explain that Norma frequently hosts events at the cafe featuring members of the medical community as well as tarot readers. "We invite people with a range of backgrounds and expertise, " said Marissa. Norma has achieved significant recognition in the fashion world and beyond, but many people who come into the store are merely drawn in by the display window. Customers stop by "whether they know that it's Norma Kamali or they're just curious, " Marissa told us. Though Norma's collections are featured in most major department stores, including her Fifth Avenue neighbors, this location on West 56th is the only one devoted exclusively to her. Because of their "small but mighty" status, Norma is able to keep a hand in everything that goes on at her boutique and wellness cafe: she styles the display window and chooses what clothing is showcased. Her virtual presence is strong as well: she narrates her own website, providing the stories behind various pieces of clothing. Towards the end of our time spent here, an exhilarating moment occurred when we had the pleasure of catching a glimpse of the grand lady, herself.
There are many reasons to dine at BLT Steak, tucked discreetly between The Dorchester and an antique jeweler. Having dined here on varied occasions over the years, I knew visiting with Manhattan Sideways, that we were headed towards something special. As we entered the restaurant, we were greeted warmly by the affable staff and took a seat at one of the dark wood tables. We spoke with John, the Venezuelan maître d', who told us about BLT's secrets for success. "The company feels like family, " he said by way of opening, "I've been here for nine years, which is an eternity in the restaurant business. " BLT has built a following of regulars who come back repeatedly because they are "infallibly made to feel like they're the only ones in the restaurant. " In addition to this impeccable service, the food at BLT is consistently top notch. It is, therefore, not difficult to understand why people keep returning for more. While chatting, the chef prepared a succulent variety of meats, perhaps most famously the enormous Porterhouse steak – a dry-aged masterpiece served with maître d'hOtel butter and a side of roasted garlic. Although meat certainly takes center stage, the restaurant also offers a "sublime" Dover Sole and a Tuna Tartar that, according to John, is the best in the city; "I dare someone to find me a better one, " he said. My favorite moment, however, was when the chef presented Yelena, from our team, her first popover. Hailing from Swaziland, she had never encountered this doughy puff of goodness before. I, on the other hand, have had popovers on the top of my list of favorites since I first tried them as a little girl on Long Island. And I can attest to the fact that the ones served at BLT are perfectly prepared.
My family has never been known to turn down the opportunity to indulge in a meal that includes perfectly cooked - charred on the outside and medium on the inside - filet mignons. Thus, I smiled as l shared Bobby Van's amazing creamed spinach, onion rings, Brussels sprouts and mashed potatoes, while eyeing the others as they bit into their three "heavenly" steaks.