There is no over-the-top, Tex-Mex red and green here. Instead, string lighting and wire deck chairs give the entire restaurant a patio feel, and the nods to Mexico are subtle and tasteful: tables set with blue-rimmed glasses like the ones I have seen on trips to the country, and a bar at the back with row upon row of tequila and mezcal.
Rosie’s is the latest from restaurateurs Marc Meyer and Vicki Freeman, known for their other ventures like Cookshop and Vic’s. When I stopped by in July of 2015, Rosie’s had been open just over three months, though Anna Marie, the General Manager, said “strangely, we feel like we’ve been here longer. It’s a comfortable feeling.” I asked her to tell me about her experience with the new restaurant so far, and she told me how lucky she felt to be in the area. “I love the neighborhood,” she explained, “one of our goals coming here was to become part of the community.”
“We’ve really tried to bring Mexico to New York,” Anna Marie continued. Owner Marc Meyer had been travelling to Mexico for years, and so opening Rosie’s was a dream come true for the chef. “He just has such a respect for the cuisine,” Anna Marie added. Of course, in order to bring authentic Mexican to Manhattan, a great deal of research was required. “We all went to Veracruz last August to do more research on the seafood side,” Anna Marie recalled. The research certainly paid off. Members of the Sideways Team were blown away by the Cangrejo al Ajillo, a pan roasted blue crab served with guajillo chile, garlic, lime, and olive oil.
Besides such astonishingly fresh seafood, another tradition that Rosie’s brings straight from Mexico is the Comal – the centerpiece of the dining area is a circular, tiled bar where women prepare tortillas by hand. “Our Comal Bar is a tribute to the ladies on the streets in Mexico,” Anna Marie told me. There, the women grind their own corn to make the masa needed for corn tortillas. At Rosie’s, the corn is imported directly from Mexico, and ground downstairs, so that the first thing customers smell when they enter the restaurant is the fresh cornmeal. The women who make the masa into tortillas wear traditional comal aprons sewn from fabric that Marc Meyer and his team brought back from one of their trips. It is just one more touch of authenticity to accompany the restaurant’s delicious food.
While the menu at Rosie’s does not focus on a particular region of Mexico, it acts as a travelogue of sorts, a collection of recipes inspired by Marc’s journeys there, and the culinary experiences that the country holds. The enchiladas are served in traditional style, with an aromatic mole sauce, and of course, everything comes with freshly-made tortillas. “The chefs – you get an air of such pride from them,” Anna Marie exclaimed. “They feel celebrated, and that makes me happy.”
After making frequent trips to Mexico and being unable to stay there as she wished, Dina Leor decided to do the next best thing: She brought Mexico to New York. Her success is evident upon walking into the store: Everything is covered in paper flowers and bright colors, enough to lift the spirits of any New Yorker wandering in on a gray day. A Lilliputian party of skeletal characters dance on a shelf for Día de los Muertos and little metal charms called “Milagros” or “miracles” cover many of the pieces. Dina carries everything from simple keychains and children’s toys to elaborate folk art, but each piece has a special meaning, often explained by little handwritten cards on the shelves. Dina is an artist herself: she used to make colorful boxes. When she opened La Sirena in 1999, she was essentially creating a bigger box: A box housing art and culture. She calls it her “evolving assemblage, ” a “living altar. ”La Sirena attracts all sorts of people. While I was visiting, there was a Swiss family browsing, straight from the airport. Since Dina’s was the first store they had found, they gave her a little box of Swiss chocolates. Many of Dina’s customers, however, are regulars, and Mexicans themselves. While spending time with Dina, she told me how a Mexican man had walked in and started weeping, because the store reminded him of his grandmother and he had not been able to go home to visit her. The store is “an umbrella of the republic, ” Dina says, and many regions of Mexico are represented. Dina went on to tell me another story, while explaining that she carries items from $2 to $500. One day she had a Mexican mother come in and gush over the merchandise. The woman wanted to get something for her four children, but only had a twenty-dollar bill. Dina helped her find four hand-made items and felt very proud when the cash register read “$19. 60. ” Some of the pricier pieces in the store come from the expatriate New Yorker Sue Kreitzman, a cookbook writer-turned-artist, whose work is celebrated in England, where she now resides. She uses echoes of Mexican folk art in her work. La Sirena provides her with many materials and is proud to feature her art. The history and familial meaning behind all the art is fascinating: Dina explained to me that in Mexico, life and art are not clearly separated. Artistic items are often family efforts, and children will frequently come home from school in the afternoon and help paint or sculpt or craft. The art is “handmade by beautiful people: ” when she travels around Mexico, people welcome her into their home and give her tortillas to represent reciprocal warmth. One of the most beautiful sights that she has seen on her travels was a woman breast-feeding while making clay pieces at the home of Josefina Aguilar, now well-known in the folk art community. “It’s part of the circle of life, ” Dina says: making art among nature, raising children, and teaching them the same artistic passions. Dina herself is part of this circle of life: As the adopted daughter of Mexico, she is continuing its artistic traditions and teaching them, in turn, to New Yorkers.
Had we not been personally escorted through the unmarked double doors that lead to Kenkeleba Gallery, Manhattan Sideways might not ever have known it was here. The only sign on the building reads Henington Hall, etched into the stone facade along with the year it was built, 1908. According to Joe Overstreet, in the 70’s the building was condemned until he and his wife, Corinne Jennings, were able to strike a deal with the city in 1978. Although 2nd Street was teeming with drug activity back then, the arrangement proved worthwhile for Overstreet, as it gave him, his wife, three children and the emerging Kenkeleba House a home in an area that eventually cleaned up its act and became one of the most important neighborhoods for the arts in New York City. Since its founding, Kenkeleba House has flown under the radar as a not-for-profit gallery space and artist workspace. Joe and Corinne were only interested in promoting new ideas, emerging artists, experimental work, and solo shows for those deserving of the recognition. They preferred to showcase artists whose works were not typically featured in commercial galleries, focusing primarily on African American art. Joe and Corinne’s vision of Kenkeleba House - as a space for artists to grow, to showcase African American that oftentimes would have been lost, and teaching African American history through gallery shows - was only possible due to their extensive background in art as well as their immense individual efforts. Corinne was born into a family of artists in an isolated part of Rhode Island, and until she was about twelve or thirteen, she thought “that’s what everyone did- I thought people made things. ” Her father, a talented printmaker who studied under Hale Woodruff, is widely known for his black and white wood engravings and costume jewelry. The Wilmer Jennings Gallery - across the street on 2nd Street - is named for him. Jennings’ mother was a Yale graduate and painter. Corinne came to New York in the 1960’s, originally wanting to be a scenic designer. Even though she was qualified, she was turned away by the head of the scenic designer’s union with the explanation that they did not want any women or black people. She instead started to do art projects, and eventually decided to “tackle some of issues that prevented African American artists from fully developing. ”Corinne and Joe spent a lot of time speaking with artists from different parts of West Africa and the Caribbean, eventually coming upon the realization that “they needed to find a different way for people to develop, for people to have space to work, [and] to find alternative educational routes for people. ” In 1978, Joe and Corinne purchased an abandoned building on second street, fixed it up, and opened up their first art exhibition in 1980. From then on, they began amassing their extensive and remarkable collection. The exhibits on display in this gallery recognize the rarely explored contributions that people of African descent have made to the art world. It is here, hanging on the walls and filed away in the deepest recesses of their private collection, we were showed a portrait of Dr. John DeGrasse painted by a largely forgotten African-American artist by the name of Edward Mitchell Banister (1828-1901). Banister won a national award for his most famous painting, “Under the Oaks. ” The magnificent framed picture of Dr. DeGrasse is easily worth more money than we could count, but the history lesson we received from Joe was priceless. Dr. DeGrasse was a native New Yorker and also one of the first African-Americans to receive a medical degree. He gained acceptance to the Boston Medical Society in 1854, making him the first African-American to belong to a medical association in that state. And to boot, he was also the first African-American medical officer in the U. S. Army serving as Assistant Surgeon in the Civil War. In addition, Manhattan Sideways viewed works dating back to 1773, by the late Hale Woodruff, an African-American abstract painter who lived in New York City from 1943 until his death in 1980. In addition to being an artist who aspired to express his heritage, Woodruff was also an art educator and member of the faculty at New York University. “We are African-American, so that is what we do, ” said Corinne, “but we are also interested in artists from the Lower East Side. ” Corinne’s personal art collection reflects much of her parent’s amazing work, as well as that of other African-American artists, both well-known and yet undiscovered. Kenkeleba Gallery aims to teach the younger generations about African-American history. “Every nationality walks by here on a daily basis, but they have no idea who we are as a people. ” Joe and Corinne were well aware of the contribution African-Americans have made to the arts that began right here in this community. Their private collection is made up of over 30, 000 paintings, artifacts, art books and jazz records that tell the rich history of African-Americans in this country.
The space is fabulous at Billy Reid, furnished with vintage southern pieces and housed in an amazing Bond Street building. Billy began his fashion business in Alabama and opened up his inviting menswear enclave here in 2008. Soft flannel shirts, great suede boots, woven skinny ties, colorful bow ties, well-made blazers, beautiful striped shirts and more…I love everything about this boutique, and each time I stop by, I am inspired to make over the men in my family. Billy designs much of the clothing in the store (minus the Levi jeans). He has gorgeous fabrics to choose from for suits and sport jackets. And there is a tasteful selection for women, too.