"Monkeys are whimsical and playful and that fits with our theme," Arun relayed to me on the evening that we sat down in his Indian restaurant and cocktail bar. Arun grew up "all over." His dad was a diplomat who moved the family every few years from India to Washington to London. "I was constantly having new friends, a new home, a new school - a new life." But, in hindsight, Arun said that it was an amazing way to be raised, and he appreciates what his parents did for him. "Hey, I have a friend and a couch in every city that I need to crash now."
Arun spent time working in other restaurants and bars over the years, but it was always his dream to have his own place. He just needed to figure out exactly what his concept would be. Initially, he thought he would open a cocktail bar, as there were none in the surrounding area at the time. "I recognized the density in population, and the variety of restaurants, but there was nowhere for people to go to have a nice drink and relax in this neighborhood," he said. After admiring the bistro format derived from his uncle's successful restaurant, Bateau Ivre, which opened in 1995, Arun sat down with the man that he had always admired to discuss some of his ideas for starting a business. Enthusiastic about Arun's concept, his uncle took Arun to India where the two solidified their partnership. Now, periodically, they will travel back to their native country as well as to England to refresh their palate and come back to Manhattan with new recipes to try.
There is a limited menu - not one's typical Indian choices - highlighting a little bit of everything from India’s North to its South, as well as the classic street food found in India. They are continuously revamping the menu and trading dishes with their fairly new downtown location, Royal Munkey. Many of the recipes that Executive Chef Derik Alfro uses are from Arun's mom, grandmother, and other members of the family. "This is home style cooking," Arun told me as he placed a plate of white bread in front of me, cut into triangles with a mild cheddar cheese shredded over it and a bit of red onion, cilantro and green chili mixed in. "This is the kind of food we would eat at home, and at Drunken Munkey, we are trying to serve it in a similar style and setting."
While Arun tasted the chicken alongside the rest of us from Manhattan Sideways, he pointed to the accompanying sauce and told us that it was his grandmother's recipe - a play on the traditional tamarind made with apple butter, a blend of ground spices, and lemon that steeps for a few days before it is ready to be served. A number of other dishes were brought out, including a bowl of crispy fried okra and Paani Pori - tiny appetizers that we popped into our mouths and let explode with beautifully spiced liquid. Next, the team devoured a plate of perfectly cooked baby lamb chops while I tasted the cubes of cheese in the classic, but marvelous tomato-spiced sauce. Arun then commented on the mango dessert that Royal Munkey serves, explaining that it is inspired by Arun's memories of his mom serving his dad a fresh cut mango every evening on top of a bowl of vanilla ice cream - "simple, refreshing and delicious."
There are two photos that are especially sweet hanging on the wall - one of Arun's parents' wedding and the other of his grandparents. Arun's mom continues to come by at least once a week to sample the food and to give "valid pointers." It is a combination of every one's skills that makes the menu a perfect blend of dishes. Even Arun's ninety-four year old grandmother comes by to check on things. Arun refers to her as the "entrepreneurial brain" in the family.
Arun continued to discuss the interesting menu, describing it as "Anglo Indian." He proceeded to give us a quick history lesson about the British and Indian relationship to food. As a child, Arun loved hearing the tale of how the Brits and the Indians melded their lives and their food. Vinegar was a common ingredient used in both countries, but the similarities stopped there. Everyone had a different take on which spices to grind and include in their dishes. As Arun tells it, the English did not use spice, and therefore their food was bland, but the Indians introduced them to an entirely new way to appreciate whatever they were preparing - even Shepherd's Pie. The name of the Royal Munkey's menu, "Mess Hall," harkens to a time when the best fare could often be found in officers clubs and railways cars and Indian street food. Arun, however, thinks of the bar as the center piece to the restaurant and that the food is meant to complement the beautifully crafted cocktails. His cocktails are based on old British drinks and tied into India - little stories are mentioned throughout the drink menu in addition to historic references.
"People who come in who are from India immediately appreciate the history that surrounds them and can relate to it," Arun told me. It is not only the food, however, that draw them in: it is also the ambience. Although there are Bollywood flicks playing on the wall next to the bar and toy trains hanging in a different area, the wooden panels alongside the mirrored glass wall could easily translate into a French bistro, a look that appeals to Arun's uncle.
Because there is a limited amount of seating, Arun decided that he would like to support another business a few doors down, while ensuring that he would not lose his own potential customers. Therefore, if people come by without a reservation and cannot be seated for a little while, the Royal Munkey will give them a voucher and send them to Reif's Tavern for a drink. "It works out well for everyone this way," Arun revealed. "People questioned my choosing to be on 92nd Street but it is proving to be just fine." The restaurant stays open until three or four in the morning - something unique to this part of town - and the kitchen remains open alongside the bar. Arun ended our conversation by mentioning that he really wanted to be on a side street: "Besides the reduction in rent, there is a charm in being tucked away."
Although the Jewish Museum has their own extraordinary gift shop, right next door there is Celebrations. Opened in 1997, this is a store where customers can peruse a collection of high quality Judaica and select mezuzzahs, kiddish cups, dreidels, and many other sacred items. Having purchased many wedding, Bar and Bat Mitzvah, and other special occasion items here, I was quite familiar with this amazing place. Spending time with Carol Ullman and Stacey Zaleski, two lovely women who run the shop, made my appreciation for the exquisite selection that much greater. Celebrations recognizes the work of artists from other countries as well as from right here in the city. Sage Reynolds is a New York artist whose hand-made designs sit next to a glass case that displays silver objects from Israel. Included in the collection were a few items made from stainless steel metal lace, which Carol accurately described as, “Very pretty and very unusual. ” The selection runs from traditional, such as tallit made on a hand loom by Israeli women, to colorful and modern, like a large orange seder plate. The two women explained that there are no specific guidelines for the Judaica that Celebrations sells, except that it is "Good quality, good level of design, and clear function. ”Included in their innovative inventory are colorful glasses to break at a Jewish wedding ceremony and historic ketubahs from the museum’s exhibits, with the text removed. “This is a go-to place for couples to come, ” Stacey said, to which Carol added, “Sunday is always a busy ketubah day. ”Ketubahs are not the only items in Celebrations that imitate pieces from the Jewish Museum. There are also reproductions of silver pieces from the museum’s collection, which have proven popular with the shop's customers. As for more modern designers, Alessi is always a big seller. There are also some stunning pieces from Ludwig Wolpert, who is considered the “father of modern Judaica” and who had a workshop in the Jewish Museum in the middle of the twentieth century. In the central case I discovered “Forgotten Judaica, ” a company based in Rhode Island that creates folk art-inspired items decorated with squirrels and other common animals. Possibly the most touching collection that the two women pointed out were the mezuzahs from Mi Polin, which translates to “From Poland. ” They are the only Polish Judaica designers that Stacey is aware of, and each of their pieces is steeped in history. This company locates mezuzahs from houses that were destroyed during World War II and then creates bronze casts of them. Each one has an address on the side, explaining where it was found. When a customer purchases one of these, they receive a story explaining its origin. “A lot of the pieces in here have a story, whether they’re one-of-a-kind or handmade or artisan, " Stacey shared. And Celebrations allows customers to take the time to explore, examine, and hear the stories behind each work of art. “It’s an intimate place to shop, ” Stacey pointed out, noting that the pace of the Judaica store is a lot slower than that of the main museum gift shop. With its personal attention to shoppers and willingness to create custom items, Celebrations has become a favorite location for generations of families. As Stacey said, “We create long-lasting friendships with customers. It’s a family affair. ”
It is not every day that one can walk into a bar at six o'clock in the evening and be greeted by an eighty-four year old woman in a soft pink cardigan sweater with pearl buttons, serving beer to her customers. "She is our shining beacon, " one of the gentlemen announced as soon as he saw the expression on my face. He then told me that Rosie began working at Rief's Tavern as a young woman, when there used to be a kitchen in the back. She would cook side by side with "Mama Reif. " Today, the kitchen is gone, but what remains is a room complete with a pool table, shuffle board and golf machine. Farther back, there is an outdoor garden. Rosie returns each Wednesday to act as the bartender and to serve her loyal customers. "We are doing our best to keep her out of retirement, " one gentleman piped in. He told me that he travels in from Queens every week "just to sit at the bar and order a drink from our Rosie. " Rosie smiled and commented, “I've been around a long time, but that doesn't mean I'm the best bartender. " Apparently, others do not agree. Before I could fully explain my reason for stopping by, several people interrupted me, wanting to tell me not only about Rosie the bartender, but about the history of their neighborhood tavern. Michael and his friend Susan were kind enough to speak on behalf of everyone, as he seemed to have been coming to Reif's the longest. Michael has lived in the area for his entire life. When he was just a toddler, his mom would "kick" both he and his dad out of their apartment on Saturday afternoons, so that she could clean, and his dad would take him to Reif's. This was in the early 1960s. Today, at the age of fifty-three, Michael still lives nearby and continues to patronize the tavern. As for the origins of the bar, John and Bobby were two brothers who opened Reif's in 1942 and then were clever enough to purchase the building a number of years later. In 2016, the next two generations are still running the place and living upstairs. The environment that these two men created years ago has continued on, so much so that Michael told me that though they might be considered a "dive bar, " to the many locals who frequent Reif's almost every night, but, he said "This is family. " The regulars are involved in every aspect of each other's lives, attending celebrations from births to funerals. They even "abandon the bar sometimes" to go bowling together, and have traveled as far as Barbados as one big happy crew - including the Reifs. After spending a very pleasant time with this splendid group of regulars, I received one more heart-warming quote from Michael: "This place is not just about having a cocktail in a bar, it is more like a social club that if you're lucky enough, you get to be in it. "
The way in which Table d’Hote changed hands demonstrates how tight-knit the New York culinary community is. The small restaurant, which seats twenty-six, was started by Vivick Bandhu and Lauri Gibson. Lauri’s niece, Liz Chapman, is married to Jonathan Benno, who is probably best known for opening Per Se. Long before establishing Per Se, however, Jonathan worked at Gramercy Tavern as a line cook with William Knapp. The two men became good friends to such an extent that Bill was Jonathan’s best man at his wedding. And, it was here that he met Lauri and Vivick. The founders of Table d’Hote asked if Bill wanted to take over their restaurant, but he declined their offer. A few years later, however, Bill found himself at the end of a long stint at Loeb’s Boathouse. “I was done doing banquets, ” he told me. When Lauri and Vivick repeated their offer in 2011, Bill took them up on it. After the change in ownership, the restaurant was only closed for a week before Bill reopened it with a proper POS (point of sale) system and a full liquor license. Bill was greatly influenced by his time at Gramercy Tavern, especially when it comes to fresh, seasonal cuisine. He considers his time at the restaurant as a turning point in his career. He explained that while the food at Table d’Hote is expensive, that is because the ingredients come from the same markets as the produce at Per Se and Gramercy Tavern. “It’s simple food and it’s excellent food, ” he asserted. Many neighbors appear to agree with Bill’s evaluation, since he estimated that about sixty percent of his customers are regulars. Although there are some people who remember the restaurant how it once was and are disappointed that they cannot come in for a soup and a sandwich, the amount of people who are excited by the new version of Table d’Hote greatly makes up for it. Bill affectionately described the original owners as “hippies who started the restaurant as a place for dinner parties. ” Lauri and Vivick worked at the UN and ran the restaurant part-time – they were not restaurateurs. They recognized that when Bill took over, he would turn the cuisine up a couple of notches. Many have certainly appreciated the change, including Eli Zabar, who lives a few doors down. One day, Eli decided to have a large dinner party at Table d’Hote. He came with a box of food and asked Bill to turn it into a delicious dinner for his friends and family. Needless to say, Eli was thrilled with the outcome. One element of the restaurant that has remained the same, however, is the décor. The tables and chairs are rustic pieces that the founders discovered at flea markets and yard sales. The space continues to have the cozy French charm that it had when it originally opened. The ambience has also recently benefitted from the artwork of a local artist, John Jay Gebhardt. John changes the paintings on the walls each season, and has even sold a few pieces to the restaurant’s patrons. Though the menu changes seasonally, there are some popular dishes that Bill serves throughout the year. “The crab cake and mussels are pretty consistent, ” he said, after telling me about the cavatelli, which is handmade downstairs. When I visited, the leg of lamb had also become a nightly staple. As for fish, Bill makes sure that he always has salmon available. “When I take salmon off the menu, people cry, ” he said, dryly. The Manhattan Sideways team was fortunate to sample the creamy mussels and the succulent Peking Duck Breast, served with asparagus. Despite Table d'Hote’s excellent cuisine, Bill seemed to be most proud of his staff, who have remained consistent. “Everyone’s been here for at least four years, ” Bill said, adding, “Everyone has a key to the restaurant. I couldn’t be happier with the honesty of my staff. ” I learned that on Bill’s days off, Jeffrey manages the restaurant. Jeffrey and Bill have been together since they worked at Patroon in 1996. Bill related to me a time when Jeffrey tried one of Table d’Hote’s salad, made with red and green watercress, apple vinaigrette, and almonds. Teasing him, Jeffrey asked, “Where’d you steal this recipe? ” to which Bill replied, “I made it up! ” I also met Juan, who moved to New York after working as a car mechanic in the Dominican Republic and whom Bill bumped up from dishwasher to chef. Possibly the most recognizable face at the restaurant, however, belongs to Angelo, who is the lunch waiter every day. “People come in just to see him, ” Bill exclaimed. There have been times when, just by using his charisma, Angelo has been single-handedly responsible for having customers seated at every table both indoors and out. “I’ve seen him fill seventeen espresso orders at once by himself, ” Bill stated proudly. Each member of the staff works to make Table d’Hote a relaxed, homey place that just happens to serve superb food, prepared to the guest’s specifications. Bill ended our conversation by sharing that perhaps it is his friend - who also happens to be a chef - who put it best, “Every time I come, it’s like my personal chef is cooking for me. ”
Like many uptown churches, Central Baptist Church had its origins downtown. It was founded in 1842 on Laight Street and later moved to the Times Square area before finding its current home in 1916. Sharrata Hunt, the office manager, showed me around the main sanctuary, pointing out the stained glass windows that depict the life of Christ and the large organ that, though it has not worked in thirty years, is a grand addition to the space. Today, there are over 150 active members. In addition to the English masses, there is a Spanish mass every Sunday and Haitian services on Sunday evenings. Sharrata showed me to the chapel, which is ornamented at the front by the same style of stained glass as the sanctuary. Music is very important to Central Baptist Church. Arrayed around the altar are a piano, bass guitar, and drum set, which are used at every service. Sharrata also let me know that there are some extraordinary musicians in the congregation and that David Wallace, the music director, is a trained opera singer. One of the church’s parishioners in the early 1900s was Robert Lowry, a respected hymn-writer who is best known for “Shall We Gather at the River, ” which is still in the hymnals. On the lower level, there is a gym that was started by Pastor Bruschweiler, who was the head of Central Baptist church until the mid-1990s. I could hear children playing down there as I stood on the ground floor. The basketball court is a wonderful resource for neighborhood children and has helped expand the church community. Sharrata informed me that one Elder of the church became a Christian because he came to Central Baptist Church for basketball so often. He even married a girl who was a cheerleader for the basketball team. On the top floor of the church, there is another gym, which is used as a dance studio. “The church is a good resource for local schools, ” Sharrata said.