I have always enjoyed taking my children to painting centers where we could walk in off the street, select a piece of pottery, paint it, and have it fired up. It was a great idea to have a store where visitors of all ages can participate in a craft on any level, and without having to make a reservation. Peter Moustakerski, the owner of Voila Chocolat, had the same thought when he accompanied his daughter to a party at a pottery shop. He began to contemplate how to use this concept and apply it to the making of chocolate confections. It eventually led him to create the business that now sits on 79th Street where passersby can stop in and be taught how to make truffles, chocolate lollipops, peppermint bark, and more. Some two decades after having sat with my children while they designed ceramic pieces, I discovered Voila Chocolat, where my husband and I had the pleasure of taking our then four-year-old granddaughter to indulge in a chocolate workshop. It truly is a place that everyone can enjoy. Each time I have visited, I have seen a different demographic, from a high school field trip to a group of special needs adults.
At the front of the shop, Voila Chocolat has a small retail and cafe portion. They serve five kinds of hot chocolate, including spicy, matcha, and white chocolate. Beer and wine are also available. Anyone is welcome to enjoy the cafe: visitors do not have to participate in a chocolate workshop to sit and grab a drink.
Elaine Boxer, a member of Voila Chocolat's team, met Manhattan Sideways one morning to educate us in the world of chocolate. Not a bad "class" to attend. She led Olivia, Tom and myself past mason jars full of dried fruit and nuts and test tubes filled with every topping imaginable, into the back room.
As an introduction to Peter's history, Elaine said, "I'm waiting for someone to do a movie of his life." Born in communist Bulgaria, Peter managed to escape by getting accepted to a language immersion program in China. There he met an American entrepreneur and began working for the "Cowboy Candy Company." Elaine was sure to let us know that Cowboy Candy Company was not a way of getting cheap labor for exports to the United States, but that it was created for the rising middle class of China. Before Cowboy Candy Company, "the candy in China was terrible," she informed us. Peter met his wife, an American, in China, and decided to move to the United States and raise a family. He went to Columbia Business School and worked in finance for a decade before finding a different path in 2010. He had become fascinated with chocolate and, in Elaine's words, "got into the nerdiness of what goes into chocolate." He took classes at different cooking institutes and made trips to Costa Rica to visit cacao farms. He became an amateur chocolatier, which Elaine informed us is different from a chocolate maker, who is responsible for turning cacao into chocolate rather than chocolate into confections. In December of 2014, Peter opened Voila Chocolat.
When Peter was developing the idea for Voila Chocolat, he very carefully selected his team. He began amassing an enormous chocolate network. He met Tina Wright, who is one of the leading food event producers in the country. Tina then introduced Peter to Voila Chocolat's secret weapon: Christophe Toury, who was the executive pastry chef at Jacques Torres. At first, Christophe thought Peter was absolutely crazy, but then he was attracted to the challenge of the endeavor. Elaine called Christophe a "rare bird." Though he is one of the top ten pastry chefs in America, he does not have a strong interest in having the focus be on himself. "You would think a big ego would go with that," Elaine said, referring to Christophe's many accolades, "But no." He is all about teaching others. "People don't realize how much of this is his artistry." Elaine went on to tell us that Christophe comes from an old French carpentry family, thus it was he who designed and made the test tubes filled with chocolate toppings. He is also responsible for a number of the tools used in making the chocolate confections.
"No one has ever combined the amateur walk-off-the-street public with fine chocolate," Elaine said, elaborating on the specific techniques necessary to be a chocolatier. She showed us the patented workstations that do not exist outside Voila Chocolat. Dennis Teets, the business's "Chocolate Scientist" and one of the world's foremost experts in the properties of cocoa butter, had a big hand in building them. The silver bowls set into the tables keep the chocolate at the right temperature, one of the largest problems that they had to overcome. Now, Elaine casually offered, "Whenever someone walks in, we're ready."
Fascinated, we encouraged Elaine to educate us a bit more. Chocolate begins to turn light and dusty when it is not properly tempered. The crumbly, light layer is referred to as sugar bloom or fat bloom. Tempering coaxes the cocoa butter to make a specific kind of crystal that locks the structure of the substance in place, avoiding different "blooms." Elaine showed us an example of powdery, unappetizing, untempered chocolate next to tempered chocolate – "It's like the picture of Dorian Grey," Elaine pointed out. Education is a huge part of Voila Chocolat's mission: they offer free chocolate knowledge classes for kids after school. "We want everyone who loves chocolate to understand why they love it." Learning more about chocolate will hopefully also lead people to make better decisions with regards to what chocolate to buy. Elaine quipped, "An informed consumer is the best catalyst for change." Voila Chocolat is very interested in the ecological and social sustainability of chocolate. Peter specifically chose the Guittard Chocolate Company as his chocolate provider for this reason. His goal is to one day have more biodiversity among chocolate.
Voila Chocolat have big plans for expansion. They hope to open shops nation-wide, including several more locations in New York. While speaking with Peter, he expressed his excitement at the growth of the business. He is proud of "the kind of culture we are building - how we approach the business and our people." He then went on to say, "What are in the nucleus of it all are the energy and passion and values."
The inside of Nice Matin is like a bright carnival ground with three central pillars decorated with lights, wide spaces between tables, and colorful art on the walls. Above the doorway, there is an arrangement of baskets and fruit with handwritten signs and prices in euros, emulating European markets. At any hour of the day or evening, the restaurant is filled with people both from the surrounding neighborhood as well as from the Lucerne, the connecting hotel. The chef and owner of Nice Matin is Andy D'Amico, who has since gone on to develop other restaurants around the city, including 5 Napkin Burger. After attending the Culinary Institute of America, Andy worked at Parker House in Boston and at the Sign of the Dove on the Upper East Side, where he was promoted to head chef. In 2003, he partnered with Simon Oren to open Nice Matin, a venture that earned him the title of "Best Chef 2003" from New York Magazine. I met with Danny, the General Manager, who shared their elaborate cocktail list that had classics with a twist. He brought out a San Tropez, Nice Matin's take on the mojito. It had summery passion fruit foam that complemented the mint and dark rum. The restaurant has seasonal cocktails, such as hot toddies in the winter and Campari cocktails in the spring. My favorite time to dine at Nice Matin, however, is on a warm weekend morning when their elaborate brunch menu is offered, and I can sit outside.
Sojourn calls itself the Upper East Side’s “sexiest restaurant, ” and it is hard to argue: the color scheme, in coppers browns and reds, gives the restaurant a warm, intimate feeling. The name, which means “a temporary stay, ” hints at the fact that visitors can expect a full dining experience. Olivia, a member of the Manhattan Sideways team, was excited to return to Sojourn. She and her family had discovered the restaurant, tucked behind a residential-looking doorway, right before Thanksgiving and had visited two more times by the New Year. Along with the friendly staff, warm ambience, and delectable, seasonal food, what makes Sojourn stand out is its approach to courses: all menu items can be ordered as sharable tapas, with just the right number for the table. For example, when Olivia went with a group of seven family members and ordered the chorizo croquettes, the waiter said he would bring out two orders at three to a plate... plus one extra. Using this innovative way of ordering, each party can essentially create their own tasting menu. As for beverages, the cocktail menu is sophisticated and diverse. The restaurant not only has a large selection of wine, but also keeps some of their grapes in barrels rather than bottles, a more environmentally friendly method of storing and serving it. Among the many menu items that Olivia’s family tasted were the zesty arugula salad, crispy fish tacos, and Kobe beef sliders. Despite being thoroughly full, they made sure to have enough room for the warm, fluffy churros served with Mexican chocolate dipping sauce. We spoke to Johnny Musovic, who owns Sojourn with his father, Sami. They originally opened a Mexican restaurant called Santa Fe in the same location, but discovered that the neighborhood did not have a strong need for casual Mexican food. Instead, the father and son duo reopened with a higher-end concept which has been wholly embraced. Johnny proudly told me that his father is no newcomer to the restaurant world, having been the Head Maitre D’ at Sparks Steakhouse and Mr. Chow’s. He also has two other restaurants nearby. As for Johnny himself, he told me “In this industry, you can’t be afraid to get your hands dirty, ” referencing his time spent as everything from dishwasher to delivery boy to co-owner. He is clearly very proud of Sojourn for a variety of reasons, beginning with the food. “Most chefs are into fresh, local ingredients, but these chefs really are. ” He is also happy to have cultivated a chic, relaxing space, which includes live music on Monday and Tuesday evenings. Though he proclaims that the Upper East Side is his favorite part of the city, Johnny’s dream is to open up a Sojourn in Midtown one day. Until then, his goal is to integrate his bar crowd and his dining crowd. One night, he held a two hour open bar as his way of “giving back” to the neighborhood. Along with drinks, he offered his customers a series of hors d’oeuvres. He was surprised by how many of his bar regulars approached him and said, “I didn’t realize you had such great food! ”
Shaaray Tefila has a very special place in my heart. For well over twenty years, beginning in the early 1970's, this was a home away from home for my grandparents. Reaching 79th Street and having the opportunity to write about this synagogue has brought tears to my eyes again and again. Rabbi Tattelbaum played an important role not only in my grandparent's lives, but in mine as well, when I was a young, impressionable teenager. It was Chip Schrager, the Communications Coordinator for the temple in 2015, who kindly guided the Manhattan Sideways team through the space, beginning with the main sanctuary. The room is expansive, seating 400 people downstairs and 200 in the balcony, and Chip was proud to say that it was filled to the rafters during the recent Hanukkah services. Something that I did not know was that the building used to be a movie theater until the temple took over in 1958. The old projector room is now used as an office for the parenting programs. Founded in 1845 as a strict Orthodox temple, Shaaray Tefila has shifted locations throughout the city, becoming Reform along the way. Stepping into the chapel, where smaller services are held, I saw bold stained glass ornaments on one side of the room with the names and symbols of characters from Jewish lore. In the meeting room nearby, well-polished Judaic pieces, along with artifacts dating back to the temple's founding were displayed. In addition, we took note of photographs of the old temple on West 82nd Street, the Seal of the Congregation, and even the trowel that the rabbi used to lay the cornerstone of the Temple. Leaving the room, Chip gestured to photographs of six men who were senior rabbis at Temple Shaaray Tefila. The temple has a strong children's program, including a nursery school, kindergarten, and religious school that extends through high school. We appreciated getting to observe the room used for art class. A giant paint pallet decorated the wall and colorful supplies lined the room. We then ventured up to the roof where the playground is located, surrounded by a fence that still allowed for a beautiful view of the winter sunset. It was here that Chip continued to speak of the various programs offered to every age group, including senior citizens. This is what my grandparents took advantage of so many years ago, and it warmed my heart to know that people are still participating in the various classes that Shaaray Tefila has to offer. As Chip beautifully stated, "Whatever your Jewish journey is, we want to be a part of it. "