In Afrikaans, the literal meaning of "Braai" is grill, but the word has come to signify any place where family and friends gather to share food and stories. This is exactly what the South African restaurant provides, marrying traditional and contemporary South African cuisine for a unique dining experience. Due to South Africa's complicated colonial history, the food has influences as varied and far-reaching as French, Portuguese, Dutch and Malay cuisine. The diversity is reflected in the menu, where Brie sits next to Indian samosas, and Mozambiquan prawns follow pork ribs and spinach.
Located down a few steps in a long, slender room, Braai offers warm lighting, eye-grabbing African art, and dark wooden furniture, including a tall bar with an extensive wine list, a few South African-inspired cocktails, and superb Rooibos espresso.
When we ate at his restaurant during the summer of 2014, Vice Versa co-owner Franco Lazzari offered his advice. "If you don't like competition, don't open a restaurant in Manhattan. " This attitude towards the New York restaurant scene, one shared by fellow owner and chef Stefano Terzi, is precisely what has allowed Vice Versa to survive, grow, and thrive in the fifteen years since its inception. When the Italian restaurant first opened in 1999, its out-of-the-way West Side block was entirely populated by old-world French restaurants, most of which the men told me had been in the neighborhood for forty years or more. With its sleek interior, full bar, and contemporary Italian cuisine, Vice Versa was something entirely new - and even seemingly, they felt, out of place in its side street location in the midst of Hell's Kitchen. In retrospect, it is clear that the restaurant was not an anomaly, but a herald of coming change. "We were pioneers, " Stefano told me. The neighborhood has grown to meet its forward-thinking denizens; today, only one of the French restaurants (Tout Va Bien) is still in business, and the block is dotted with restaurants serving everything from Japanese to South African cuisine. Ironically, Vice Versa is now one of the more established restaurants on the block, thanks almost entirely to word-of-mouth recommendations and a loyal customer base. In the 90-degree weather, it was a relief to sink into one of Vice Versa's tables and peruse the menu. I did wander outside to their lovely patio for a moment. Complete with ivy-covered stucco walls, tea lights, and white umbrellas, it felt like stepping into a small piece of Italy, but just for a moment on this rather warm afternoon. Rather than ordering off the menu, I asked Stefano to surprise us. The members of the Manhattan Sideways team were treated to an excellent meal of banzino (sea bass) with olives, cherry tomatoes, and oregano, and very large sea scallops, cooked to perfection and set alongside a roasted lemon over escarole. We were started off with three different types of pasta - casoncelli, stuffed with veal, amaretto cookies, raisins, sage, pancetta and parmesan; garganelli, red beet pasta coils with alfredo sauce, roast prosciutto, and green peas; and a simple seafood-stuffed ravioli. Blending a wide variety of ingredients and flavors for a subtle and delicious eating experience, the team was simply delighted. After lunch, I chatted with Franco and Stefano over coffee, biscotti, and a pistachio cake with raspberry sauce. Both men are transplants to New York: Stefano grew up in Bergamo, Italy, while Franco was born and raised in Bologna. He came to the United States in his twenties planning on staying no more than a year. Twenty-six years later, he says that not a day goes by that he regrets his decision. Other than their shared national origin, the two told me that they could not be more different. Stefano grew up loving to cook; Franco's grandmother made food for the family, and he admits that he never took an interest in her cooking. Franco is small, with short grey hair, glasses, and a perpetual white suit. Stefano is taller, with a Dali mustache; he speaks slower and with a heavier accent than his counterpart. From my perspective, the differences between the two men are precisely what has allowed them to succeed as partners. Despite Franco's lack of interest in cooking, he loves to eat, and "makes a great critic, " according to Stefano. Franco runs the business side of the restaurant, while Stefano's domain is the kitchen. The respective roles have evidently worked well for the pair - they met working at the well regarded San Domenico (now closed), where Franco ran the front of the house and Stefano was chef de cuisine. Vice Versa presents a modern take on traditional Italian ingredients, which are imported from Italy as often as possible, through many local suppliers. The pastas are made from semolina, "which is a good thing for pasta, and for people, " Stefano said wryly, referencing the current gluten-free trend. In the last fifteen years, Stefano, Franco and their restaurant have grown and changed along with the city. "We went through two major events in New York, 9/11 and 2008, " said Franco. "On September 11, emotionally the world changed, and the 2008 financial crisis certainly changed New Yorkers' way of spending. " The goal now, " Stefano explained, "is to spend well your money. " The survival and continued success of Vice Versa is testament to its customers' ability to do just that.
Opened in 1963, Victor's Cafe has a long history of serving traditional Cuban food in an elegant yet relaxed environment. The tropical decor conjures up fantasies of dining in Havana as does the menu, which features Cuban classics such as Ropa Vieja and Lechon Asado. Run by Victor del Corral's daughters, this family-owned restaurant has retained its charm over the years, although long-time patrons bemoan the fact that they can no longer smoke their Cuban cigars in the Lounge.
Aldo Sohm Wine Bar, which opened in the late summer of 2014, pairs ease with elegance as a welcome addition to 51st Street. “We live in a very fast-paced world. ” In midtown Manhattan, these words resonate. But spoken by Aldo Sohm, seated at a table in his eponymous wine bar, they seem incongruous. “The idea is basically that when you walk in here, you walk into my living room. To me, it’s always important that you be in a place where you feel comfortable. ”Sohm continues his role as wine director at Le Bernardin, the four-star restaurant located across the 6½ Avenue pedestrian plaza. At the wine bar, however, he and Le Bernardin’s co-owners, Maguy Le Coze and Eric Ripert, have created a setting distinct from the formal restaurants in Manhattan, in its simplicity and lack of pretense. To be clear, it shares the elegance and attention to quality of its neighbors. But upon entering, an open arrangement of sofas beckons patrons to sit down. Sohm has noticed guests who arrived separately conversing across tables - sometimes even discussing their choice in wine. And wine is the focus at Aldo Sohm. Eric Ripert, Le Bernardin’s acclaimed chef, oversees the food menu; so, whether wine accompanies lunch, dinner, or a snack, it promises to impress. Guests can order bites to complement a glass of wine, like a grilled foie gras “lollipop” or a warm skewer of baby beets. Shareables include a whole baked cauliflower and a plate of Murray’s cheese with a Maison Kayser baguette. Sohm emphasizes the flexibility of the experience. If not in the lounge area, there are tall square tables for seating. The thick oak “sommelier table” incorporated into the bar seats guests on both sides, ensuring that no one is excluded from conversation. Sohm chose these arrangements intentionally. The wine bar endeavors to be unpretentious, relaxing and fun. Evoking this sensation, the architectural firm Bentel & Bentel incorporated clean lines and bold color in designing the interior. Sohm and his co-owners deliberated considerably in choosing the art in their “living room. ” Ample shelves extend to the double height ceiling, featuring artifacts meaningful to Sohm. Having grown up in Austria, Sohm points out, “I like things very very clean, very European. I like colors on top of it. ” A stack of Interior Design magazines becomes a design object itself as a cube of rainbow spines. The curves of miniature Panton S-chairs, each a different color, mirror the charred wood molds of the delicately hand-blown Zalto glasses in which each wine is served. Sohm is the brand ambassador for Zalto, an Austrian-based glassware manufacturer. To learn more about the varied wine offerings, visitors can reserve the tasting room. Aerial photographs of wine growing regions flank the eight-person table, allowing the sommelier to incorporate a visual element and story of provenance to the tasting. Sohm - once designated the “Best World Sommelier” by the Worldwide Sommelier Association - maintains humility despite his accomplishments. He wants the wine bar to be just as down to earth; an antidote to a demanding day, it exudes precision and sophistication.
While the lineups at Radio City Music Hall have changed dramatically over the years, the "Showplace of the Nation" has long been at the center of the city's entertainment scene. Opened to the public in 1932, the Art Deco building, with almost six thousand seats, was initially intended to "house high-class variety entertainment. " However, the space was later converted to a movie hall, with films accompanied by stage shows. This lasted until 1979 when, for a variety of reasons, Radio City began transitioning into a concert hall. Besides consistently booking some of music's hottest stars, Radio City has also hosted numerous award shows, including The Grammys and The Tony Awards and is the home to the Radio City Christmas Spectacular featuring the Rockettes, a tradition that commenced in 1933.
Saar, which translates to “the essence of something, ” has a double meaning for Pastry Chef Surbhi Sahni. It represents the essence of Indian food, as well as the essence of her relationship with her husband, Chef Hemant Mathur. Although Surbhi has been in the industry with Hemant for years, the two have not worked together on a daily basis since their days at their Michelin-starred restaurants, Devi and Tulsi, both of which are now closed. Saar represents their fresh start while also staying true to their culture and roots. When Surbhi and Hemant met in 2000, Hemant was teaching Indian cooking classes at New York University as he was getting ready to open Tamarind on Park Avenue. Surbhi joined the opening team at Tamarind, designing the tearoom and promoting quick lunches. He went on to operate five different spaces, including Sahib, Haldi, Chote Nawab, Malai Marke, and Chola, while Surbhi helped manage events. During that time, she also launched Bittersweet NYC, a pastry business focusing on wedding cakes and Indian style desserts for larger corporate events. Surbhi’s relationship with cooking is unlike the typical love story of most chefs. Her experience in the kitchen started at the age of ten in New Delhi as more of a responsibility and chore when her mother’s health declined. She explained to members of the Manhattan Sideways team, “It was not something I could ever imagine myself doing for the rest of my life. I wanted to do art and write and paint or sing and dance - every other activity in the world but cook. ” Notwithstanding these sentiments, Surbhi was encouraged by her father to take a job in hotel management in New Delhi. She was part of the Sheraton Group’s revolutionary all-female kitchen and restaurant at a time when there were only approximately twenty female chefs in all of New Delhi. At age twenty-five, however, Surbhi chose to move to the United States to pursue her Masters in Anthropology and Food at New York University. Despite never getting to study writing and painting at university, these endeavors have always been an integral part of Surbhi’s life. Her father is an accomplished artist exhibiting in both India and the US. Today, she is proud of her own teenage daughter, Soumyaa. "She is the true artist of the family. " When entering the dining room on 51st Street, Surbhi’s artistic aptitude is obvious. The modern space is both clean and dramatic, with natural light and bright pops of color. Saar was a particularly exciting project for her, as she was given free rein in its design. In a mere five months, she turned what she described as a dingy, confused room into an open, tasteful dining space. Saar has also allowed Surbhi and Hemant to completely reinvent their menu. They focus on regional food, staying authentic to the specific flavors of each area. For example, Surbhi told us that the Turbuj Pachadi - a tomato and watermelon salad with a fennel and ginger dressing - is a Rajasthani staple, as watermelon is a fruit that is readily available there, and is usually consumed with freshly baked bread. She has also made an effort to challenge conventional conceptions of Indian cuisine. The Mango Coconut Soup is a light and sweet palate opener, proving that Indian food is not always too spicy or a combination of too many flavors. She believes that Indian food is actually very demarcated in the way flavors are put together. “Just how in Japanese food they have many different layers of flavors they add as they’re cooking, we do the same with Indian food. ” While cooking can serve as a creative outlet, Surbhi still tries to write and paint whenever she can. In ending our conversation, Surbhi emphasized the importance of food’s role in building a community - something she looks forward to creating on West 51st Street.