Greeting guests with a small taste of their Spanish mulled house wine, we immediately knew that we had discovered a small wonder. Aytac and Zaf, both from Turkey, are the owners. They lived in New York for many years, working in other restaurants before the two friends decided to embark on their own adventure. They opened their doors in 2007 and have had a steady flow of customers, drawing from both the locals living in the neighborhood and the strong tourist population that surrounds them. Nothing is made from scratch on the premises, as the kitchen is minute, but what they bring out of there is absolutely scrumptious. We managed to eat every piece of chocolate made by either renowned Jacques Torres or Xocolatti. Small chunks are served on a wooden platter, similar to a cheese board. Delving into their signature dessert, "21 Layer Crepes Cake" was like indulging in a piece of heaven. Thin crepes and whipped cream, topped with burnt sugar. We watched as others shared the dark chocolate fondue, dipping into their melted land of wonder with bananas, strawberries, marshmallows and finger cookies as Frank Sinatra was singing in the background. Although we did not order anything else, there is a menu filled with savory treats - Angry Chicken Lollipops, White Truffle Pizza, Goat Cheese Brulee and, of course, a cocktail menu of Chocolate Martinis and wines from around the world.
There is a lot of space to have fun and be funny at Pioneer's, formerly named Comedy Bar. Well that makes sense, as it is owned by Ali Farahnakian, the man behind the PIT (People's Improv Theater) on 24th Street, which opened a new location just down the street in 2015. We found this place to have a little bit of everything. A fan of pinball? There are several machines; Love playing Jenga with giant size blocks? They have them; Want to dance? The music is playing and there are others who will join in; Like comedy? There are open mic nights; Want to simply drink? The selection is fine, with a variety of beers on tap... and the bartenders are ready to chat; Hungry? There is a menu to choose from and lots of popcorn to go around.
After having eaten at Barbes, I was eager to check out Omar Balouma's other restaurant. Stopping to notice the beautiful, ornately carved front door, we learned that it was shipped directly from Morocco, and functions as a literal and figurative portal to North Africa. Inside, a vague smell of hookah smoke hangs in the air amidst beautifully crafted walls done in a soft pastel-hued Venetian plaster. The front of the restaurant is for dining where the menu offers smaller Mediterranean-style plates flavored with Moroccan spices. The back hookah room might be the real star. Benches line the large square room, along with colorful seat cushions while tapestry-esque sheets hang overhead. Saturday nights come alive with belly dancers and music is played by Rachid Halibal, a native of Morocco.
Having spent years throwing parties and doing his best “most interesting man in the world” impression, Robert Chan, a.k.a. Toshi, seems to have settled down. After starting his career on Wall Street, Toshi became an actor (appearing most notably in The Departed), all the while hosting mega-parties that became famous citywide. Now, he has been trying his hand in the hotel business, running the Penthouse and Living Room in conjunction with the Flatiron Hotel for the past few years....and, by what we could discern, rather successfully.The living room downstairs serves as a funky music and performance venue, with live acts every night of the week. The couches are cyan, magenta and golden and might have been designed by a stylish Dr. Seuss. A circular tank houses all sorts of tropical fishes, including sharks, and juts up to the second floor mezzanine. There is a bar on each of these first two floors, with an experienced mixologist slinging all sorts of spirits until two in the morning.But it is upstairs, in the Penthouse, where there is a minimum spending limit so the vibe is a bit more exclusive (all hotel guests have access). Emphasis is placed on outdoor seating, with the Empire State Building providing a powerful backdrop. On any given night, alongside the live performances, Toshi's affable canine companion, Prince Ponzu, can be found frolicking with his owner.The entire operation reflects Toshi’s emphasis on hospitality. Guests can often find him mingling amongst their ranks, or fully engaged in friendly conversation with his performers. Once a first timer in the hospitality business, Toshi has made his mark by welcoming thousands of guests into his own party setting. He has clearly become a seasoned veteran.
How is this for an architect’s resume: The Dakota (known today as the apartment building where John Lennon was shot), the original Waldorf and Astoria hotels, (subsequently torn down to make room for the Empire State Building), the Plaza Hotel, the Willard Hotel in DC and the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston. Henry Janeway Hardenbergh designed the Hotel Martinique in two phases: the first part opened in 1898, and was then completed in 1910, with 600 rooms in total. The intricate mosaic flooring remains intact, as does the winding staircase that climbs eighteen stories.
At Paris Baguette, the Manhattan Sideways team grabbed a tray and a set of tongs and indulged. We found each baked bread to be more desirable than the next, from the simple white loaf to the peanut crumb to the chocolate cream bread. The cakes are magnificent pieces of art. We were particularly drawn to the strawberry and fresh cream, and the chocolate and banana. A chain that originated in Korea, Paris Baguette now provides baked goods to almost three thousand stores. Although not everything is prepared in-house, the aroma alone makes it worth a visit, as does the show of people who come through Paris Baguette each day.
Besfren’s official motto is “Hopping into a pastry fairy tale,” and that is exactly what it feels like to wander into this hip dessert café. Truffles, macarons, caneles, and delicate slices of cake are displayed in shining glass cases, while customers sip on tea and chat at low tables along the wall. But Besfren and its partner company, Korean Red Ginseng, also have an unofficial motto – “traditional with a modern twist” – that perfectly captures the café’s Korean-American roots.On my first visit to the café, I had the pleasure of speaking with Min Ree, who co-founded Besfren in 2012 with his friend, Paul Park. Though neither of them had any culinary experience – Min had studied accounting, while Paul was a student of fine arts – they were determined to bring traditional Korean rice cake desserts to an American audience. After more than a year of experimental baking, Min and Paul felt that they had perfected their catering menu and their signature dessert, the chaps pie.The next step, Min explained, was to contact event coordinators and catering companies. “We brought our desserts to the meetings,” he said with a smile, “and it went really well.” Soon, Besfren was catering for the likes of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vogue, the Grammys, and the United Nations. Most of the guests at these exclusive events had never tried anything like the chaps pie, an oven-baked, gluten-free rice cake, but Min said that “they could not get enough.” It quickly became apparent that Besfren had transformed the traditional Korean chapssaltteok, and now they needed to make it accessible to a larger New York audience.It did not take long for Besfren’s modern twist on Korean desserts to appeal to the managers of Café G, owned by Korean Red Ginseng. Hoping to expand their business and bring ginseng extract teas, powders and roots to a larger audience, they approached Besfren about a collaboration.Min and Paul agreed, and after a series of renovations, Besfren x Korean Red Ginseng opened in May of 2015. One side of the café is still devoted to red ginseng extracts and powders, whose health benefits include memory enhancement, increased energy, and anti-aging functions. But the main entrance opens onto the shining Besfren dessert counter, where customers can buy pastries, Toby’s Estate coffee, and fruity ginseng drinks. The floor-to-ceiling windows and simple interior design create a sense of space inside, and the café’s location on the corner of 32nd Street and Fifth Avenue makes it perfect for people-watching. The café is bustling at all hours of the day, but the smiling employees make sure to devote special care and attention to every customer who walks in.Sitting down with Min, the Manhattan Sideways team sipped on the fizzy Korean black raspberry chia cooler, the pink grapefruit yuza, a delicious balance of bitter and sweet, the ginger lemon tea, which was strong and spicy, and the refreshing ginseng latte. Before finishing our drinks, we were presented with a beautiful tray of desserts: The chewy, dense texture of the chaps pies delighted us, and while Nina was partial to the maple multigrain variety, Flannery said she would come back just for the black raspberry. Next, we dug into the triple cheesecake, which was made with cheese mousse, a layer of New York cheesecake, a graham cracker crust, and raw cream cheese on top. The hint of lemon in each delicious bite brought me back to my childhood, when I would sneak into the fridge and steal a taste of my mom’s cheesecake before her dinner parties. The honey earl grey cake was pleasantly light, especially after the rich cheesecake, and we all enjoyed the green tea jasmine roll cake, which was moist and flavorful. Even though we were stuffed, we each took a bite of a delicate canele, savoring the sweet, caramelized crust and the soft custard center.While we ate, I asked Min about the Besfren logo, which I had noticed scattered about the café, and even on his bolo tie. According to Korean legend, he explained, there is a rabbit who lives on the moon and pounds ingredients for rice cakes. Paul and Min decided to adapt that idea for Besfren, and their logo features two rabbit “best friends” who pound rice cakes together.With a constant flow of customers, particularly because of their close proximity to the nearby Empire State Building, there is always a buzz at the café. It seems that word has spread enough so that Min mentioned that they are scoping out locations for a second cafe in Manhattan. In the meantime Min, Paul, and their team of bakers are always developing new recipes to add to their fairytale menu of sweets.
Hanamizuki had an unexpected beginning in 2014: it grew out of a laser hair removal business. Jumi Fujiwara, who originally hails from Osaka, Japan, desired to combine beauty and health and open a healthy Japanese café adjacent to her hair-removal studio. Most things on the menu are traditional food items from her homeland, but with a twist. As she explained, “Rice balls are simple, but can have a lot of ingredients.” Part of what lures the customers (and myself) in is the décor. Jumi shared that she teamed up with a “Green artist” from Japan who has expertly made the café look like the inside of someone’s lofty garden shed. Ivy and other plant life frame the space while dried herb and flower displays are nestled next to rusted accessories. The café is a little rustic watering hole in the center of the bustling city.
Today, NoMad – short for North of Madison Square Park – is one of Manhattan’s hottest neighborhoods, but Moku, co-owner of Izakaya NoMad, could not have foreseen that when location-scouting for his New York variation of a classic Japanese izakaya (a casual bar serving small plates that pair well with alcohol). Having owned an izakaya in Korea Town, Moku wanted to bring Japanese food to a region where it was sparse.Averi, a member of the Manhattan Sideways team, had an exceptional experience at Izakaya NoMad. Upon her arrival, she was greeted warmly by Moku and his team and quickly shown around the restaurant before the dinner crowd poured in. They started at the front of the house, where Moku pointed out the first section of a three-part custom mural painted by an illustrator from the School for Visual Arts, depicting NoMad infused with elements of Japanese pop culture like Godzilla and Astro Boy. From there, they moved into a long, narrow hall lined with cozy geometric booths, a long bar and open kitchen. Moku admitted that it would have been easier to have the kitchen stationed in the rear like most eateries, but he and co-founder Jay desired to be transparent about their high quality ingredients and also wanted guests to be able to interact with their culinarily well-versed yakitori chef (who coincidentally, bares the nickname Godzilla).Passing by the bar, Averi and her hosts drifted to the back of the dining room, where on an elevated platform, reconfigurable chairs rested under cubed light fixtures. Behind them, modern counters hid in an exposed brick cove with a graffiti reptilian tail tagged on the wall. Back at the front, Averi took a seat at a grand communal table wrapped in cool light from the descending sun and decorative paper lanterns overhead. Sliding doors reminiscent of shōji separate the area from the restaurant upon request, creating an ideal space for company dinners and birthday parties. Moku noted that Izakaya Nomad's design established five “unique spaces… like a maze.” The bar was intimate and mature, the tables on the platform familial and familiar, the urban grotto youthful and hip, and the front room airy and conversation invoking.Once settled, Moku shared the novel-like menu with Averi, consisting of yakitori, sashimi, sushi, tataki, tempura, hot pots, wine, beer, and sake with informative descriptions for those who may be unfamiliar with Japanese cuisine. A waiter then brought three varieties of sake, and Moku gave Averi a brief lesson in the fermented rice alcohol. She learned that the intensity of flavor stems from how much the outer layer of each grain of rice is stripped away. For example, the harder junmai sake polishes less of the grain – only about thirty percent - so it had a strong rice taste, which Moku claims is popular with young people these days. The junmai ginjo sake takes away about forty percent of the grain, resulting in a subtle sweetness, while the junmai daiginjo removes fifty percent, leaving a “smooth” creamy texture and “less hangover.” The junmai daiginjo was Averi's favorite of the three, crisp and refreshing with just enough punch. Moku assured her that if sake is not a guest’s "cup of tea," an impressive list of both beer and wine are available.After drinks, Moku reviewed the custom tasting menu that had been prepared for Averi's visit. With lobster tail, soft fried tofu, sizzling butamoyasi (bacon, beansprouts onions, and chives), uni (sea urchin), and sushi, the menu was reflective of the izakaya’s overall project: to apply the best parts of the Japanese izakaya experience to a “New York market.” In fact, Izakaya NoMad was the first izakaya around to call themselves a Japanese gastropub. For this reason, the fare served at NoMad is not exactly conventional, as it includes items like sushi and ramen to meet the demand of its clientele. Additionally, the restaurant finds creative ways to incorporate less common snacks like chicken gizzard, battered, fried, and seasoned to be accessible to the average New Yorker.When the colorful, steaming plates began to arrive at the table, it seemed like they would never stop. What a feast. The enoki mushrooms wrapped in smoked bacon, grilled chicken skewers, and the fatty tuna sushi were all delightful; though the sweet “rocket tsukune” (free range chicken meatball), juicy beef short rib yakitori, and the smoky hamachi tataki (seared yellow tail) really stole the show. Averi was surprised when Moku revealed that many of the elements do not require intense seasoning: at izakaya NoMad, they “don’t overdo things” and like to let the fresh ingredients speak for themselves. Despite the quantity of dishes, nothing was repetitive. Each item showcased its own distinct medley of delicious flavors.Incredibly humble and hospitable, Moku and Jay are adamant about focusing on the food, not themselves. While they aim to rival the product of a five-star celebrity establishment, they seek to leave pretention behind, insisting they would never judge customers for how they use chopsticks or eat sushi. “As long as you enjoy, that’s the main point,” said Moku, “that’s our philosophy.” Providing “an alternative to any traditional beer experience in Manhattan” with an “upscale look but casual environment,” Izakaya NoMad has set out to be a safe, social gathering place where food, company, and alcohol can all be enjoyed without inhibition. From Averi's experience, we can verify that is certainly the case.