While visiting Amoun ended up being an experience filled with a feast of dishes and an ambient Mediterranean atmosphere, the true joy of Amoun were the people who run it. I stopped by with members of the Manhattan Sideways team only a month after the restaurant / lounge opened at its original Upper East Side location in the fall of 2015 and was given an extremely warm greeting by the owners, Nash Zanfal and Trinidad Salazar. Joining them was Ral Martin, who handles the public relations for the restaurant. The enthusiastic combination of the three was contagious.
The team met working at Horus, downtown, and has continued the Egyptian God theme by christening their newest venture "Amoun" after the king of the gods. Nash is Egyptian, but both Trinidad and Ral, who come from Mexico and the Philippines, respectively, describe themselves as "honorary Mediterraneans" because of the amount of time they have spent around the cuisine - and around Nash. Trinidad has even started speaking Arabic, which is impressive for a man who said he had run into difficulty learning how to speak English. But, as he confided in me, "If you want to learn something, you can learn it." And then added smiling, "I've learned a lot here."
The space itself, which used to be the Spanish restaurant Malaga, is perfectly suited to Amoun. Nash has added an intricately tiled back room with curved windows carved into the walls between the different spaces. On Fridays and Saturday evenings, they have belly dancers, but the men seemed to be most exuberant when showing us the hookahs or "narghile" set up on tables in the back lounge. They said that the Upper East Side does not have many places for those who wish to partake in narghile. They went on to say that while the restaurant had already taken off, people had yet to discover the night-life side of Amoun. They looked forward to welcoming a larger late-night crowd as they become more settled.
When we took a seat at the bar, Ral offered to make us a few drinks off of the cocktail list, which had been developed only two days prior. We tried the Santorini, made with St. Germain and vodka, served in a martini glass. Ral also served up a "Mediterranean Nights," an elaborate affair made with Baileys and Butterscotch schnapps. The Sideways team members widened their eyes with glee as they sipped on the dessert-like drink. Ral also gave us a connoisseur's description of the narghile, which the restaurant packs with fruit for smokers, and individual, sanitary mouth pieces. "We treat the narghile like it's a work of art," Ral explained, as Nash pointed out the intricate detail on the ornate hookahs, including a bright red one decorated with gold leaf.
The three men were giddy when speaking about the menu options in their restaurant. "It is the result of several cooks working together." The chefs have a Mediterranean background, and Ral, Nash, and Trinidad have taste-tested each collaborative effort to ensure maximum quality, with a plan to rotate the menu seasonally. "We like to try something new to see what people prefer." Together, they have a very hands-on approach to their restaurant, including delivering the food to the table, themselves. We were honored with this special treatment when all three men brought out a veritable feast for us to try: the Amoun Mezzas, which featured three different spreads to dip our falafel in, as well as a fresh tomato feta dish with olives. Olivia and Tom sampled the Makanek, Lebanese sausages with cucumber sauce, and a classic chicken shish kebab. Nash mentioned how proud he is that the food is healthy and low calorie, but still very tasty. "Everything is fresh and the meat is 'halal,' which, though more expensive, is worth it for the quality." Ral also wanted to be sure that we knew that everything was house made "except the vegetables – we don't grow them!" Otherwise Nash described the food to be, "As good as my grandma would make."
After having been fed far too well already, we were surprised by an entire course of dessert, whipped up by an Egyptian woman named Najaw, Amoun's pastry chef. The baklava was not too sweet, and full of a thick layer of nuts, while the rice puddings were delightfully smooth. Olivia, Tom and I were intrigued by Kunafa, a dessert none of us had had before. It was made with shredded filo, ricotta cheese, pistachios, and a generous drizzling of lemon-sugar syrup. Served warm, it was a terrific ending to the feast.
The food and the ambiance were wonderful, but it was these three men who stole the show. It was apparent immediately that they adore what they are doing, are so proud of what they have created, but, most importantly, they are passionate about one another and the community that they are serving. As Nash so eloquently stated, "We embrace all types – and, in turn, we want everyone to embrace the Mediterranean as home."
If you are like us, you may find yourself trying to catch a glimpse of what goes on behind the fabric-cloaked entryways of all those hookah bars in the East Village. Well, we scoped out one of the city's best when we visited Cozy Cafe and found people relaxing inside and out, enjoying hookahs and appetizers in the middle of the afternoon. This Russian immigrant-owned lounge brings a larger crowd in the evenings, features belly dancers and serves up a cozy dose of multiculturalism.
We had the pleasure of spending time at Joe's Bar in 2011 before Joe passed away and it closed down. Continuously operated for over one hundred years, Joe's even had a bowling alley down stairs in the early 1900's. Now, renamed to Josies, the bar is owned by the guy who also runs Sophie's. This was his favorite place to hang out years ago, and he has every intention of keeping the bar's "small town" feeling exactly the same. "The theme of this bar will be just that - a bar where people can play pool and listen to the juke box, " the contractor of Josies told us. Hopefully, the bar still remains as the neighborhood hangout that it was before Joe passed away - a place where moms came in the late afternoon for coffee with friends and babies and the locals drank at night.
Masami Hosono’s mother worked in fashion. Growing up in Tokyo, she always knew that she wanted to work in fashion herself, but something was missing: socializing. “I love to talk and meet people, ” she explained to me with an amicable smile. In a white, modern space with a rack of clothing on her left, Masami shared her story. When she turned eighteen, Masami met a “very great hairstylist, ” with whom she would work and learn for the next four years. Her passion for hair, style, music, and socializing ultimately led her to quit her job in Tokyo and board her very first plane to New York in 2012. “I was like, I don’t speak English, but I can cut hair, ” she recounted. “Maybe I can do it. ”The New York Masami had heard about back home could not compare to the one she arrived in. She told me, “Japanese people love New York City, but they only know cool fashion, cool hair, cool music. But there’s more good stuff, personality, freedom. ” One of the biggest surprises, but also most appealing aspects of the city, was its dynamic queer scene. “Being gay in Japan is very hard, ” Masami recalled. “I’m from Tokyo, and it’s a very conservative place. But in New York City, everything is mixed. The queer culture is amazing. ”Life in New York was, understandably, a big adjustment. With no place to live, Masami spent her first nights in a hotel, and her first days exploring the streets. But she took the challenges of a new country in stride by doing what she does best: cutting hair and meeting people. While Masami made a living by cutting hair in Williamsburg, she also offered free haircuts to make friends. “I just found people on the street, ” she said with a nostalgic laugh. “Like, ‘oh, they look cool. ' And I asked them, ‘Can I cut your hair? ’” Little by little, through about 400 free cuts a year, Masami began to learn English, and build a community of friends. “Musician clients would say, ‘I’m playing tonight, you should come. ’ So I go, and they introduce me to more musician friends. I met one designer because I cut his girlfriend’s hair, and he makes music videos, so he asked if I could do the hair for the music video. I’ve met so many very cool people who are musicians, artists, skateboarders... all these artists who can hang and make creative stuff together. ”In 2015, Masami moved from Williamsburg to the East Village to work at Assort International Hair Salon. There, she took the final leap: She told her boss she wanted to open her own store. In April of 2016, Masami and her boss went into business together as Creative Director and Founder, respectively, of Vacancy. Masami stressed the importance of collaboration in small business work: “I’m really happy to have the founder because I really can focus only on the creative side. It’s really important to have the creator and financial person separate. ”Vacancy is more than a just a hair salon; it is also a pop-up retail shop (with items designed by friends of Masami) and artist hang-out. While Masami’s hair clients come from far and wide (“Do you know the singer Rachel Trachtenburg? Yeah, I chopped off her hair”), Vacancy still maintains the vibe of a small, local business, while serving a massive and ever-expanding web of Masami’s friends. Masami’s haircut services have a very specific appeal. “My haircut style is not super fancy, ” she told me, “because when I came here, I met a lot of people on the street. They always have amazing hair, and I ask ‘Where did you get a haircut? ' and they say ‘Oh, I cut it myself. ’ So I do kind of DIY, very grungy, choppy, messy. ” Her cuts are still customizable: Vacancy offers hair designs in “a lot of crazy colors, ” from pink to blue and everything in between. Masami and her army of artistic friends will not be confined to the shop. In addition to haircuts, Masami collaborates with her friends to produce a number of visual and literary creative projects, to bring their art and vision to the general public. She edits and produces a blog (or “web journal”), which features interviews and photographs of all sorts of artists, from painters to sculptors to Instagrammers, whom she has met through cutting hair. She also produces a monthly radio show, Vacancy Radio, through which she introduces listeners to her musical friends (“People are at work like ‘What am I gonna listen to today? Vacancy Radio! ’”). Most recently, Masami has produced a zine (a self-published, miniature magazine) featuring her own hair and makeup designs and pictures by her friends in photography. She is currently working on a second zine. To bring everyone together, Masami often hosts “book and zine events” in the Vacancy space, where her friends can gather and share their work. “People can come and hang out and, well, drink, ” she added with a laugh. With so many friends and projects in her repertoire, one might think she would be ready to call it a day, but this is only the beginning of Masami’s vision for Vacancy. While she will always be cutting hair, Masami dreams of an entire Vacancy building just for artists. “I want a full coffee shop, and maybe a bar. I want shared studios where the artists can make art. We can have an exhibition. We can have a music studio downstairs and live shows. Like an art house. ”As she moves into the future, Masami Hosono makes sure never to lose sight of her roots. As she guided me on her journey from newcomer to centerpiece of New York’s artistic community, what became increasingly clear to me was her awareness of the potential that her prominence in a new country gave her to make change back home. No matter how well-known Masami’s work becomes, her queer identity has always been, and will continue to be, the center of her narrative. Masami has made the decision to return to Japan this summer, and potentially begin a regular practice of working in both countries. She has already booked an interview with a Japanese magazine and looks forward to bringing New York’s culture of openness back to her homeland in whatever ways she can. “When I have a magazine interview or work in Tokyo, I want to talk about it more, little by little, ” she said. “I will change the culture if I can. ”
Dating back to pre-Civil War days and formerly the St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran church, this stately red brick structure has been a synagogue since 1940. A devastating piece of New York history happened in 1904 when a boat filled with 1200 German immigrant women and children from the original church perished in a fire on the East River. Today, it has a modern Orthodox congregation that offers services every day of the year.
“I’m not a chef. I am a scholar of nutrition and an idealist who loves health and happiness, ” proclaimed Angel Moreno, who left his home in Spain in the 1980s to embark on a voyage of self-discovery and to set up a chiringuito — the Spanish term for a cafe or juice kiosk — in the U. S. Before finding what he calls his “true purpose, ” Angel was a pilot. “But this was killing my heart, ” Angel said. He reevaluated his life and chose to pursue his aptitude for music. Though untrained, Angel had a good ear, a passion for playing the drums, and a desire to share music, poetry readings, and photography exhibits with the public. He came to open a handful of cafes and bars throughout Spain that were akin to laidback performance venues. Just as Angel planned to start a new venture in London, he met a master of Sufi (a form of Islamic mysticism). “This man was doing everything I wanted to do: yoga, traveling, and music. He was a fun guy. ” The guru made such a powerful impression that Angel followed him to the States, where he spent the next decade doing odd jobs, learning to practice Sufism, and waiting for the right time to start his chiringuito. As Angel puts it, the universe eventually led him to the ideal place. It had two rooms — one that would serve as the dining area and a second space that was used to educate others about nutrition, health, and assorted important subjects. At first, “I didn’t even know what kind of cuisine I was going to offer. ” But the teachings of Sufi, which focus on purity and wellness, inspired him to avoid anchoring himself to any specific type of cuisine. “Instead, I did international dishes and used my knowledge to adjust any recipe to incorporate organic ingredients and to be vegan or vegetarian. "Caravan of Dreams retains some of the elements of Angel’s first Spanish cafes, with daily live music and bright colors on the walls to spark joy in its guests. Yet the key component is the wholesome meals it serves. “Without health, we cannot be happy. ”