Remy, the Belgian gentleman behind the bar, described his time at B Cafe as a remarkable experience. He came to the States and was having a difficult time finding a job, but two days before his visa was to run out in 2006, he happened upon Shkel, who had recently opened a restaurant on East 75th Street. Apparently, the two men hit it off, and Shkel decided to sponsor Remy.
Over the past nine years, Remy has been able to watch "this little restaurant grow up." Having arrived on the scene only six weeks after its opening, he appreciated working for a company where he could "find the consequences" of his involvement. Remy went on to say that he became a member of a team that has had very little turnover. Remy continued, "Customers feel the consistency." Being on a side street, they must work that much harder to keep their guests coming back. He acknowledged that everything good takes time, but that at this point, he feels that B Cafe has earned the approval of its neighbors.
Dropping in on a Thursday evening around 7:00pm, I can attest to the fact that this is a popular spot on the Upper East Side. We were the fortunate ones who got to sit at the one lovely table out front on a perfect fall night, thus being able to witness the constant flow of enthusiastic diners. Luana, also from Belgium, has worked in the cafe for several years and encouraged me to speak to Remy about the beers that they serve, promising me I would not be disappointed.
As the bar filled up, Remy pulled down a laminated map from the ceiling. Picking up a lengthy pointer, this very clever man began my school lesson on Belgian beers from around the region. As he pointed to each district, he explained how the beer was made while also giving me both a history and geography education on Belgium and its surrounding countries. When I commented on how extraordinary this concept of the map was, Remy replied with a straight face, "I have been teaching here for almost ten years." I then had to know how this map idea came to be. When the restaurant first opened, Remy found that he was always drawing Belgium on a cocktail napkin in an effort to explain interesting facts about the country to those seated in front of him. One day, he told me, "The boss asked why I was always using up so many napkins and when I explained, he thought it would be better if we just had a map." Absolutely brilliant.
Settling down at my outdoor table, dish after dish was presented to Manhattan Sideways' photographer Tom to photograph and then for us to eat. The Belgian cheese platter came with clever little flags on toothpicks that described what we were sampling. I took a special liking to Saint-Bernard, "produced in the heart of West Flanders," and Brugge Jong, a "mild, smooth cheese." The Belgian endive salad was served with Stilton and an aged balsamic dressing, while the tuna tartare sat atop a mound of mashed avocado. Piping hot Moules Frites arrived and as the top was lifted, the steam poured out from a vast pot of mussels. Carbonnade Flamande, similar to a beef bourguignon but cooked for six to eight hours in an aged dark beer, was the favorite of the night for my husband, who joined us. After the Carbonnade Flamande and two Belgian beers (Palm and Tripel Karmeliet), he expressed how he wished that he could spend more time with the Manhattan Sideways team. Just when he thought the fun was over, Luana appeared with their classic dessert: The Belgian waffles were served with a dollop of Speculoos (a ginger biscuit spread) and three traditional sauces - raspberry beer, chocolate and strawberry - the colors of Belgium's flag.
Before leaving, I took a quick peek at the garden in the back, which provides outdoor seating throughout the summer and is enclosed during the colder months. Be it sitting cozily outside at the romantic table upfront, at any of the tables inside, or in the quiet garden, the experience is nothing short of exceptional. Not only is the food superb, but combined with the captivating staff, it makes for the perfect night out.
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! ”
Pil Pil, named for a specific kind of sauce originating in the Basque region of Spain, fills an important role on the Upper East Side. It is a neighborhood watering hole, upscale and with enough ambience for a perfect date or friendly hangout, but still casual enough to lure locals back multiple times each week. I spoke with Nikola Romic, the owner and general manager, who explained that this is exactly the environment he wanted to create when he opened Pil Pil in 2010: a “homey atmosphere” where locals could have good food and wine. Nikola, originally from Serbia, spent a lot of time in Spain. He gained a true appreciation for the cuisine there and now owns vineyards in the Spanish countryside. Most of the wines at Pil Pil come from either his own grapes or family-owned vineyards. Nik told me that he personally travels to each of the vineyards to speak with the vintners and try the wine. Despite being so selective, Pil Pil features wine from over eighty different kinds of grapes. Considering the breadth of his experience, the property he owns, and his education, I was even more impressed with Nik when he revealed his age - when we met in early 2016, he was only twenty-seven! Pil Pil's home on 78th Street had previously been occupied by a sake bar where Nik actually worked. When it became obvious that the space would have to shutter, Nik turned it into a Spanish restaurant, decorating the interior with wine bottles and twining tree branches to make the intimate ambience for which Pil Pil is known. His initial plan was to serve traditional Spanish food, but he has added many American classics with key Spanish ingredients to the menu to appeal to his New York audience. For instance, there is a mac and cheese with chorizo and sliders made with manchego cheese. On the day we visited, Nik was offering a special mulled wine. He handed each member of the Manhattan Sideways team a glass, seasoned with citrus and cloves, which warmed us from the inside out. He showed us to the recently redesigned wine cellar before beckoning us into the kitchen where he casually added shrimp to a pan filled with butter and spices with one hand and stirred the pot of mulling wine with the other. Everything Nik and his sous chef Pedji did seemed effortless, like a well-timed culinary dance. He brought out a few dishes for us to try on the hightop tables, including the shrimp, called gambas al ajillo, which had just the right amount of spice and left enough sauce for the perfect buttery bread dip. We also tried the freshly baked flaky mushroom flatbread, seasoned with truffle oil. The last to arrive were the macaroni and cheese croquettes. These light balls of noodles and cheese, with a dash of paprika, were sensational. Nik is proud of what Pil Pil has become, both in terms of the food and the staff, many of whom speak both Spanish and English. There is no hierarchy of waiters and food runners. Casually dressed, they all work seamlessly together, emphasizing the relaxed atmosphere that Pil Pil has fostered. On Wednesdays, Nik occasionally brings in a Spanish acoustic guitar player from Barcelona…and sometimes Nik himself even plays.
J. D. Merget, the owner of Oslo Coffee Roasters, a company that began in Williamsburg in 2003, noticed a dearth of independent coffee shops on the Upper East Side and decided to fix the problem. Fortunately, J. D. had a friend who owned a garden store that he was looking to sell. Thus, Oslo Coffee Roasters moved into the cozy space in 2011 in order to provide high quality coffee to the neighborhood. After speaking with J. D., it became clear that he knows a lot about coffee. Originally from Seattle, he had his first introduction into the world of coffee at the age of twenty-one, while working for Starbucks. He explained that the company “got [him] very excited about coffee” and that it fueled his need to find out more about the product and introduce people to better brews. He has been in the coffee business ever since, working for different companies from Seattle to Dallas to New York. It was his wife, Kathy, whom he met while working in New York, who encouraged him to venture out on his own, saying, “You know so much about coffee – you’ve got to open your own store. ” And so he did. The name comes from the fact that Kathy's family is from Norway, where they are still known for drinking more coffee per capita than most other countries in the world. J. D. wanted to steer his customers away from the idea that Italian coffee is the only good coffee and highlighting the Northern European coffee tradition seemed to be the best way to do that. They do not specifically feature Scandinavian coffee, preferring to focus on farmers who use sustainable and fair practices, rather than a specific geographic location. The result is a high quality coffee that can be sipped guilt-free. When I asked if there were plans for more locations, JD says he is happy where he is and that he prefers to focus on connecting with customers and selling a better quality product, rather than expanding. He loves the Upper East Side and is so happy to have been embraced by the neighborhood. “The support from the community is outstanding. ” He is very proud of his staff, and is glad that they have received love and recognition from a community that has been waiting for an independent coffee shop. “You become a rockstar, ” he said, telling a story of how he was recognized by customers as far south as China Town. His general manager, Liz Pasqualo, echoed his sentiments. She even added that some people double-park in order to get their coffee. For many of the children that live in the area, they are often on autopilot as they enter Oslo, assuming that their parents will follow for one of their frequent visits. Liz told me, “I am really proud of the sense of community, ” and how comfortable the place has become. “Strangers sit down and chat together about current events. " I was able to witness this sense of camaraderie when a gentleman named Hugh Fremantle, who has been coming to Oslo for the last four years, sat next to Liz while sipping on his coffee to ask how she was doing. “I’m being interviewed! ” she said gleefully. Hugh turned his attention to me and said with a big smile, “In that case, you are talking to a very happy customer. ”
After visiting many century-old synagogues, it was a refreshing change of pace to tour the modern facilities of Temple Israel of the City of New York. Sun shone through the colorful stained glass throughout the 1960s building and a winding spiral staircase occupied the front hall. The Manhattan Sideways team and I were met by Michele Amaro, the Communications Manager, who took the time to guide us through the eight floors. She led us into the sanctuary, which, as she explained, has “that mod curvy look like the Metropolitan Opera. ” The space is enormous, seating 330 people on the first floor and 500 more in the balcony. The congregation was started in Harlem in 1870 and has since been providing a place of worship for many. Today, on East 75th, it is Rabbi David Gelfand - who joined in 2006 - who continues to keep the traditions alive. According to Michelle, it is he who has helped to revitalize the Temple. Cantor Irena Altshul, Rabbi Melissa Buyer, and Rabbi Jim Stoloff round out the clergy team. Michele mentioned some of the more modern programs that Temple Israel offers, including a “Rockin’ Shabbat” (an interactive worship using modern methodologies and technologies) with Sheldon Low, artist-in-residence, , and a Lunch & Learn talk on “kosher-style sex” by Logan Levkoff, a sex therapist and clergy. on Fridays, which uses multimedia screens in worship, and a talk on “kosher-style sex” by Logan Levkoff, a sex therapist. “This is an extremely, extremely active synagogue. We have things going on all the time. ”Michele continued showing us around, taking us by multiple display cases full of Judaica, including an exquisite menorah donated by Herbert G. Lane, who was one of the chairman of the board of directors for the temple. We also passed multiple pieces of art, photos of smiling congregants, and teaching tools. On one wall, there is a Visual Torah with cartoon-like drawings so that children can better understand the stories. Michele emphasized that education is deeply important to the Temple before taking us to see the religious school, run by Rabbi Melissa Buyer. I was most impressed by the amount of space dedicated to teaching children, including a lounge for the older ones, and “Mitzvah Gardens” where students can plant food that will later be donated to those in need. The preschool rooms, which are color coded, also sport two terraces with playgrounds. We were impressed by their use of the latest technology complete with Macs and smart boards. Though the school plays a significant role in preparing children for their Bar and Bat Mitzvah, Michele stressed that the school is K-12 and covers every stage of religious instruction, creating a foundation of lifelong Jewish learning. Located underneath the sanctuary, we were amazed by the ballroom, an enormous space, that is in continuous use for various celebrations, including Hanukkah concerts, and Passover seders. When we visited, we observed an early childhood program, headed by director Lisa Samick. The space was filled with toys, and very young children were being rocked to sleep by mothers and nannies in an adjoining room. When I commented to Michele that there was no doubt this is a warm and welcoming community, she beamed, and let me know how proud she was to be a part of Temple Israel.
When we were walking by the firehouse of the Fighting Forty Four, founded in 1881, we were thrilled to find the door wide open. Children on their way home from school were gaping wide-mouthed at the fire engines while smiling firefighters looked on. We joined the ogling children and met the men, Wayne, Kenny, and Bobby, who showed us around the house and spoke about the history of the New York Fire Fighters. Over the course of our conversation, an occasional call would come in to the men. Not knowing what it meant, I asked, “Do you need to run? ” “Oh no, ” Wayne replied, “We don’t need to run. If we’re running, it means you should be running, too. ”One of my first questions was about the number “44. ” I learned that it is essentially arbitrary. It refers to when the squad was formed, long before the Brooklyn and Metropolitan fire departments merged. 44, however, is a designated specialty unit, meaning that only men who have a certain level of experience are assigned. This is because they are a Hazmat division. The men showed us the Hazmat truck, which has a big sticker that says “Zombie Outbreak Response Team. ” It matches a sticker on the main truck that imitates the “Ebola Emergency Outbreak Response Team” symbol, only with zombies. Smiling they said that little children often ask, “Is that for real? Do you really fight zombies? ”Although full of good humor, the men became somber when I commented on a memorial for Michael Lyons, a firefighter who was killed while responding during 9/11. Wayne and Bobby began sharing stories about several of their friends who were present at the World Trade Center that day. One survived by diving under a truck, while The 9th Battalion lost all of its men. Many of the firefighters from 6 Truck in Chinatown also responded that day, but not everyone came back. Men who turned one way coming down the stairs lived, and the men who turned the other way did not. As Bobby said, “If they had yin-ed when they had yang-ed, they would've have made it. ”We continued our tour of the house: There is the old hose tower, painted red, as well as the cubbies where the men keep their uniform. I was like a child, gazing at the two traditional firemen’s poles stretching to the upper floor. When I asked if they still slide down them, the answer was a definitive "yes. " I appreciated the fact that they had photos of men who have retired. I never realized that even though there are about thirty men assigned to 44, they are frequently traded around to different houses. As a rule, this firehouse usually has six men present at any given time, and never fewer than five. Another interesting fact that I never stopped to think about, of which Bobby informed us as he showed us a map, is that on the East Side, there is a firehouse right by every subway stop. Irish history is still deeply woven into the culture of the fire department. I noticed that along with the Leprechaun in the logo for the “Fighting Forty Four, ” there were many other references to Irish heritage scattered around the firehouse, including little Irish flags on the fire engine. Historically, there is a huge Irish connection to many service jobs in the city, including police work. As Bobby explained, “No one else would take the shit jobs. So they’d send in the Irish. ” There are no longer any Irish accents in this firehouse - as Wayne stated, “We’re all Bronx guys. ” Coming from uptown, the men told us that they respect the fact that they can keep their firehouse open and wave to smiling children of the Upper East Side. As if to demonstrate this, Wayne’s daughter ran into the firehouse and skipped upstairs to do her homework before heading to a hockey game with her dad. “It’s a good neighborhood, ” Wayne continued, “So we can keep the door open. ”