As New York begins to open up, the idea of grabbing a drink with friends and loved ones seems almost illicit. Formerly forbidden, we couldn’t be more excited to take to the city and begin filling up seats, supporting local restaurants.
ZIZI recently re-opened for full service for the very first time since the start of the pandemic and they’ve got the perfect drink to cool us down this summer! Whether you’re sipping in person, or kicking back at home, here’s how their most popular summer cocktail is made:
Noah’s Ark by ZIZI NYC Ingredients: 1.75 oz Zachlawi Dry Arak 0.25 oz Omhpiko Mastiha liqueur 2 oz Fresh homemade watermelon juice Half a lime Cucumber strip Watermelon cube Mint Zaatar salt rim
Mix equal amounts of zaatar and salt in a shallow bowl.
Rub a watermelon cube around half the rim of a tall glass. Dip one side of the watermelon cube in the zaatar mix. Leave the watermelon cube to the side.
Combine Arak, Mastiha liqueur, watermelon juice, lime juice, and a cup of ice in a shaker. Shake vigorously.
Strain over fresh ice into glass.
Garnish with a cucumber strip, fresh mint, and the watermelon cube.
“Gem Spa closes: Bye Bye, Miss American Egg Cream” March 2, 1972
Gem Spa is closed. The candy store which became a clearing house for the hip-yip-street freak festival in the East Village is now padlocked, its windows covered with newsprint and cardboard. The end came quickly and unexpectedly last week when a flying squad of financial undertakers were spotted hauling away the soda machine, cash register, and other transplantable parts of the corpse.
It’s too late in the day for the passing of Gem Spa to earn a place as a prophetic omen of the East Village-Lower East Side decline. Too many old scenes, like the Fillmore and the Electric Circus, have already folded. But the end of Gem Spa still rates a mention as a negative milestone of lower Manhattan life because the corner it had occupied for the last 70 years or so was not only the fulcrum for the hip thing but also for the whole neighborhood.
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Gem Spa was a landmark reborn. It was halfway between the Fillmore and the Electric Circus, always open and ready to whip up a reasonable egg cream, sell cigarettes, or provide any magazine or underground paper you had in mind. Outside on the corner other things were constantly changing hands and if you were doing the East Village sooner or later you ended up at Gem Spa.
That one of the busiest corners in New York could no longer support a candy store is a grim symptom that something is very wrong someplace. Street corners are crucial to the urban ecology and a dead corner can sour a whole neighborhood.
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There are still people on Second Avenue who can remember buying candy and soda at Gem Spa before World War I. “You always came here to the corner,” says one man, “because other people always came here to the corner and that was how you found out what was going on.”
This was the same function Gem Spa performed in its spectacular last years and people still come to the corner out of habit, although most of the egg cream and magazine trade has moved a few doors down the avenue to the Optimo Cigar Store where Micky Fischman and All Akermann have stepped into the breach.
“Why did Gem Spa close?” says Fischman. “Because it’s too hard to make a buck these days. I hear their expenses were $300 a day.”
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Another explanation blames the high price of tobacco and the flourishing trade in bootleg cigarettes, although it’s not clear just who is doing the buying and who’s doing the selling. But while no one knows for sure about the store’s future, everyone agrees that Gem Spa owes a lot of people a lot of money, and dollars are sure harder to come by than they were a couple of years ago when a panhandler could plant himself in front of the Spa and average 30 bucks a night.
But that’s all part of the past, of another life. To the people who rattle the doorknob and peek through the papered windows at the stillness inside, there’s only one thing you can say. Gem Spa is closed.
The silver lining of being slightly deflated is that you don’t roll all that far. Recently, I moved from Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, to Kensington. It’s been a slow move, carried out with a Radio Flyer wagon and those blue bags you get at Ikea, and it’s left me beat.
But I’m finished now and, boy, what a difference a few blocks make. I’ve long known it true for bagel shops that inertia and human nature dictate the one closest at hand is yours, even if it’s crummy. As Stephen Stills sang, “If you can’t be with the one you love, honey/Love the one you’re with.” I’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded by the best bagels (Absolute Bagels), pretty good bagels (The Bagel Hole), and a glint-above-average bagels (Terrace Bagels). Now, the piss-poor bready bagels of Bagels R Bakin on Church Avenue are mine. All I can do is order my egg and cheese on an egg bagel with equanimity.
A few weeks ago, however, instead of walking toward the city and a future of mediocre breakfasts, I turned toward Ocean Parkway. After just two blocks, I espied a circular sign jutting out of a glass storefront. On it was a logo, a vector illustration of a canelé. The word der waswritten above it and the word pioneer below. A chalkboard out front bore in wobbly chalk a pithy Mark Twain quote about life’s sensual pleasures. In the window, I saw people sitting on stools, laptops open, and a La Marzocco espresso machine gleaming. I had found home.
Der Pioneer opened in March 2017. The men behind it are Björn Böttcher, 44, and Greg Barbiero, 39. The blond one is Böttcher, obviously. The hirsute one is Barbiero. Both have impressive CVs: Böttcher, a native of Hamburg, Germany, worked for many years in the kitchens of David Bouley at Bouley, Kurt Gutenbrunner at Blaue Gans, and with Shea Gallante at Cru and Ciano. Barbiero, on the other hand, had embarked on career as a biochemistbefore falling in love with Italian cuisine, a pursuit he perfected first under Gallante, and then under Saul Bolton at the Brooklyn mainstay Saul. They met in the kitchen of Gallante’s now-shuttered Ciano. Both can be seen, accompanied by only two sous chefs, hard at work in the tiny glass-walled kitchen behind the front counter.
The logo drew me in, but what made Der Pioneer home was the plate of franzbrötchen, swirls of buttery cinnamon dough that look like a croissant gone wild. The sight of them there in crazy glazed array was deliverance. It was Moses gazing over the Promised Land. It was Plato’s prisoner emerging from his cave. It was Offred getting the fuck outta Gilead. See, for the last three years, I’d been a Brunswick Café guy. Brunswick is a coffee shop on Prospect Park West. It was my coffee shop, and I knew everything about it. Among the known things was that the pastries were…fine. Every morning at 8 a.m., they arrived in a cardboard box from Balthazar, the same as any other coffee shop in the tristate area. And every morning there we were, me and my kids, waiting for two pains aux chocolat, one pain aux raisins, a macchiato, and two glasses of water. But you can only go so far with store-bought. After I dropped the kids at school, I’d return for a few hours, hole up by the window (outlets), and order from a desultory menu of disappointing sandwiches. Eventually the routine, as routines do, grew tedious.
At Der Pioneer, on the other hand, the pastries on the laden plates of the counter are still fresh. They will ever be so. Made just a few feet away, lemon blueberry muffins burst with lemon zest and lemon peel. The generous allotment of blueberries in the blueberry danishes nestle in a dough so flaky and light it disintegrates like an ancient text roughly treated. Since the canelés are in the logo they better be signal and, no surprise, when freed from their heavy copper molds, the Bordelais pastries are caramelized like oak on the outside but as gooey and sweet as a Sandra Bullock rom-com inside.
The pastries are Böttcher’s métier and deeply personal. The franzbrötchen — essentially a combination of a croissant, a cinnamon roll, and a heart attack — are rarely seen outside his hometown, Hamburg. The savory menu, which is surprisingly extensive, comes from Barbiero and his tiny four-burner stove. Despite the name “Der Pioneer,” his isn’t the genius of the trailblazer. It’s the talent of the restorer. He takes the known and polishes it until it shines anew. Barbiero is precise in his measurements and assiduous in his execution. A short-rib hash, a diner staple, is ennobled by port wine jus and topped with a pair of definitionally flawless poached eggs. When broken, they bind the bits of potatoes and cut-up celery and carrots into breakfast manna. The breakfast burrito, which, like many of the menu items, was born from a customer request, is the size of a rolled-up Sunday New York Times. The sheer exuberance of the cheese-bound, bean-befriended, avocado-coated scrambled eggs threatens to escape the tortilla before entering one’s mouth, which would be a Shakespearean tragedy.
There is no reason the cheeseburger at a coffee shop should be as good as this cheeseburger is. The natural juices of the patty, which sits wondrous high in its sesame bun, are bolstered by oozy cheddar and the ministrations of sautéed onions and homemade pickles. In the mouth, rendered fat and char! In the hands, a slobby party! It comes with a pile of garlicky roasted potatoes that glisten as if on a rocky beach in Maine and a small side salad of enormous freshness. I guess. I just ate the burger and saved room for the hot dog, unusually long with more snap than a beatnik café and more juice than a fully charged laptop. But if you don’t feel like emerging into the swelter of Church Avenue in a food coma, go with the seasons. Summer is expressed as sweet corn and poached eggs. The corn, generously apportioned but nonetheless light, is spiced with a hint of jalapeño. A spicy aioli is artfully swooshed, fine dining style, along one side of the bowl. The eggs, again, poached as perfectly as a highly qualified candidate. A summer salad of grilled apricots and peaches, with roasted beets and pickled radishes cut into translucent coins and walnuts, is classic anti–heat wave fare. I should know. It’s 100 degrees and I’m staring at this plate thinking, “Man, I love it that they give a shit enough to form the components into an elegant crescent!”
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Since July 15, our move-in date, I’ve spent tens of hours and hundreds of dollars at Der Pioneer. I know every inch of this space. There are four outlets along the perimeter. There are five stools that line the front counter, the one facing the window onto Church Avenue. The second one from the door squeaks when you spin the wooden seat to raise (or lower) it. If you sit in the corner, you get better access to the outlets but the sun blinds you from about 9:15 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. There are six stools on the side counter; the fourth one in from the door is wobbly. I know because I’m sitting on it now. For a few days last week, when Böttcher was on vacation, the nozzle on the watercooler broke and we had to make do with measly carafes. Now it’s back, thank God. There’s a long beautiful wooden table that seats eight in the front but I didn’t know it was made from golden acacia that fell in a Thai forest until I asked.
Already enough moments have passed here that I feel part of the fabric, the slow osmosis of making a new neighborhood yours. Most of the moments are small, the ands, buts, and thes that make up most of one’s life sentence. Deadlines hit; deadlines missed; coffees drunk; lunch eaten by the glow of Google Drive. But already the five-dollar words are beginning to appear as well. A few weeks ago, we celebrated my youngest son’s fifth birthday here with a single-serving raspberry gâteaux. (Well, two actually — one for his older brother because who wants to spend a birthday fighting.) Along with the delicate hazelnut dacquoise and the sacher cake, the gâteaux lurked in the display case like an escapee from a fancy Upper East Side patisserie slumming it in Kensington. So pink it could be a millennial toy, so sweet it could be a dream, a single raspberry was perched upon the raspberry yogurt mousse. A speck of gold leaf sat fluttering like a flag staked atop a summit, as if to claim that this was the land of the small triumph, the quiet victory, the vanguard of home.
For weeks after chef-owners Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson opened Frenchette this spring, getting to the host stand required besting a daunting gauntlet of New York’s well-dressed and well-heeled. Reservations were all but impossible to come by, waits could be taxing, and even early birds hoping to preempt the crowds were met with a queue of fellow hungry hopefuls spilling out from the vestibule entrance onto West Broadway. Though maddening at times, it was pretty nice to see people lining up for crunchy, gelatinous pig’s-foot croquettes and light-as-air fried anchovies.
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Frenchette’s torrential popularity was a foregone conclusion. Nasr and Hanson, who met working at Daniel Boulud’s Upper East Side flagship, spent years delighting the masses in tandem as part of Keith McNally’s empire, opening Balthazar with the prolific restaurateur in 1997 and heading up legendary nocturnal haunts like Pastis, Schiller’s Liquor Bar, and Minetta Tavern. Their reputation precedes them the way lightning does thunder. Frenchette, named for David Johansen’s 1978 song, is their long-awaited stand-alone debut. Auspiciously, it joins a recent surge of nouveau French cooking that runs the gamut from ultra-luxe Le Coucou and La Mercerie to tiny, ambitious MIMI, and safe bets like Lafayette and Augustine. To Nasr and Hanson’s credit, they’ve found a sweet spot that sits comfortably at the nexus of all three styles.
Rocking since April, the duo have clearly picked a few things up from their former boss about how to design and run an irresistibly likable restaurant. In fact, under the glow of some very Schiller’s-esque, tubular-in-all-senses-of-the-word light fixtures, dinner here almost approaches the carefree joie de vivre of another Johansen tune: his cover, as Buster Poindexter, of Eighties earworm “Hot Hot Hot.”
Marvel at how two groups of would-be diners become comrades in waiting, toasting one another with $16 Armagnac cocktails and $14 spritzes before being ferried to opposite ends of the clubby front lounge’s parade of snug auburn banquettes. Nearby, one of the bartenders stirs two drinks simultaneously while discussing dessert options with the double date that just polished off a $134 côte de boeuf. Join the ranks huddled around the splashy, meandering zinc countertop and she might offer to send sommelier Jorge Riera your way to chat about whether the Slovakian pét-nat you’ve been eyeing goes with your order of sea snails ($14) accompanied by a ramekin of ruddy, saffron-kissed rouille. (It does.) A natural-wine whisperer, Riera previously ran the show at Wildair and Contra, and his deep but approachable list magnanimously includes several bottles in the $40–$50 range.
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Free to flex their creativity and clearly eager to do so, Nasr and Hanson oversee an ambitious, oft-changing menu of cleverly edited bistro fare that rewards risk-takers and traditionalists alike. And it’s not a strictly Gallic affair, either. There are borrowed standards, like the terrific wedges of tortilla española festooned with golden smoked trout roe ($9), as well as purely seasonal gambits such as a fluke tartare buzzing with shiso, salty sea beans, and tiny, coveted tristar strawberries ($18).
A classic guinea hen terrine ($20), here served with toast and celery remoulade, is streaked with so much gamey schmaltz it looks and tastes like bird Wagyu. The duck frites ($35), with its crunchy fries and textbook béarnaise, features equally impressive poultry prowess, the judiciously seared breast rosy throughout and capped with a burnished, crackly skin. For brouillade ($22), eggs are scrambled with an obscene amount of butter for fifteen minutes until they become a lush porridge, to which the kitchen adds a quartet of garlic butter–sloshed escargots raised on Long Island. Nearly as rich is a shareable spit-roasted lobster ($52) splayed down the middle and drenched in curry butter, its heaviness balanced by a salad of raw radishes and fennel.
Robust and edging on custardy, Nasr and Hanson’s wondrously, defiantly summery blood sausage is one of the best things I’ve eaten all year. The paunchy slab of boudin noir ($24) arrived on a pan-fried corn cake surrounded by fresh raspberries and pickled mushrooms, draped with stylish pink chicory leaves and gossamer-thin ribbons of guanciale — a bitter, sour, fruity moshpit of ferric meatiness. You should also cross your fingers for blowfish tails ($16) coated in spiced breadcrumbs and espelette pepper butter, like the buffalo wings of the sea, though a main course of skate wing, similarly prepared, is a fine substitution. Portions can skew excessively generous: The gnocchi parisienne ($12), flecked with chives, is an entrée masquerading among the side dishes. Make sure the toasted cylinders of pate a choux dough, loaded with ham and smothered in melted Comté, find their way to your table.
Meals end on a high note thanks to pastry chef Michelle Palazzo’s mostly traditional desserts. Peak-season fruit tarts ($14–$16) are especially dependable, made with buckwheat and shortbread crusts and layered respectively with pastry cream and fromage blanc, a fresh, yogurt-like cheese. To really match Frenchette’s party vibe, however, look to shareable sweets like perfectly cakey cherry clafoutis ($16) and a pastry called the Paris-Brest ($16) that’s named for a bicycle race but ends up looking more like the wheel of a monster truck once Palazzo is done piping in twirls of Sicilian-pistachio buttercream.
If you fold up Manhattan like an old receipt kept in your pocket, the block of 46th Street between Eighth and Ninth avenues known as Restaurant Row is right in the middle crease. Thus designated in 1973 by Mayor John Lindsay, Restaurant Row is a little filthy, a much overlooked, worn-out, and grit-gilded stretch of sagging apartment buildings and saturnine dining rooms. It certainly is no longer what Lindsay intimated it was — if it ever was that — when he asked rhetorically, “Where else in the world, except possibly Paris, could you get sixteen of the best restaurants collected in such a short strip of land?”
By then, the area around it was already on the decline, but the Row itself, once owned by the Astor family, was a beacon off Broadway, a strip of class that acted as the Maginot Line against the strip clubs and titty bars of Times Square. It served the tony theater crowd, and though a few blocks east the rough trade of the Deuce went down, in the dining rooms of Restaurant Row Broadway stars and politicos supped in style. Alas, of the sixteen original restaurants, many have since shuttered. Not even the most charitable of critics could call the survivors best at anything but their own survival.
Restaurant Row isn’t exactly failing, nor is it thriving. It seems to have achieved a diminished equilibrium. There are a fair number of empty storefronts, especially on the south side of the street, and a steady incursion of well-respected, well-run, but ahistorical Japanese restaurants — including Sushi of Gari, Sushi Seki, and Ikinari Steak. There’s now a nail salon, a few crumb-bum bars — not scuzz enough to be angel-headed; not class enough to be swank — and the disconcerting arrival of fast casual concepts including Bareburger and Pure Ktchn, which is, apparently, too pure for vowels. But to a remarkable and, to me, surprising extent, Restaurant Row has maintained its charms. Plural because, as I am to find out during this extended stay there, lunch charm is different from dinner charm, which is different fromnight charm.
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The allure of diurnal eating is the mostly empty dining room: Being this alone in New York is a rarity and a pleasure. It’s like an instant day hike to Harriman. Take Le Rivage, a French warhorse first opened in 1984 by the family Denamiel. Like most restaurants on the row, Le Rivage has a spray of menu options displayed on the sidewalk, from lunch prix fixe, lunch à la carte, pre-theater, happy hour, etc. There are deals advertised here that rarely correspond to deals actually offered once inside. Frequently, the prix fixe menus are accompanied by more caveats than a politician’s apology.
Nevertheless, one can’t help but be charmed as soon as one steps into the dining room. “Bonjour!” says a small, gray-haired, owlish hostess, “vous êtes seul?” “More than you could ever imagine, lady,” I think to respond. Instead, I do that which I hate done: I reply in the language of the cuisine of the restaurant in question. “Oui, l’enfer c’est les autres.”
The place itself is large and low-ceilinged. The decor is grand-mère chic. There are both white tablecloths and white carpet, a rarity in this linenphobic restaurant scene. The walls sport oil colors of French country scenes, and the menu is about as by the book as Bob Mueller. Whereas at hep downtown neo-bistros, where riffs are being composed on classics like trout amandine and moules farcies, here the classics prevail. Let the youngsters have their Coltrane. This is the Rodgers & Hammerstein version of “My Favorite Things.” From the lunch prix fixe, I order a potage aux legumes; a glossy green soup, it tastes no more and no less than what it is, liquefied potato and leeks served warm. Next is a chicken cordon bleu, a dish as old-fashioned as calling the MTA the El. Though ill-served by a broiler, this version is passable. That it still gives pleasure reflects the underlying wisdom of whosoever first combined breaded chicken, a slice of salty jambon de Paris, mushrooms, and a blanket of béchamel sauce. Re-emerging midday into the crest of the August heat wave after the meal — Salut!A bientôt! — is like waking up after a bender. The sun, the people, their inability to walk properly on a sidewalk. I make it a few steps before seeking refuge in Brazil Brazil, the restaurant next door.
My favorite song, “Águas de Março”the live version with Antonio Carlos Jobim and Elis Regina in which they both start cracking up, plays on a stereo in the ghost-town room. Paintings of thatch cottages surrounded by flowers on the Côte D’Azure are replaced by those of brightly colored huts in Paraty and capoeiristas mid-kick. The only other diners are a pair of elderly Brazilians and a young Brazilian tourist family. That’s a good sign. The chef here, Antonio Werdam, lives in Astoria, home to much of New York’s Brazilian population. As Le Rivage rolled down the center of the lane, so too does Brazil Brazil. This is basic shit, Brazilian food 101.
The menu starts with salgadinhos, “small salty things,” like pasteis — fried envelopes filled with salted beef or cheese — and coxinha de frango, a dewdrop-shaped fritter of shredded chicken, the kind of food you cop at the botequim lining the beach in Rio. Of the mains courses, my favorite is the feijoada, a hearty black bean and meat stew served with a cassava flour called farofa and a molho de pimenton, a salsa of chopped tomatoes, onions, peppers, and vinegar. One of the few well-known Brazilian dishes, feijoada often gets gussied up into some shmance deconstruction. But it’s best served on the ground level, with cuts and sausages you don’t often find except in Brazil, and in such pockets of the Brazilian diaspora that exist. Fuck virgins, when I die I want to be greeted by a caldinho de feijoada, a small pot of feijoada, with two slices of orange, a tangle of garlicky, thinly sliced collard greens, and a small mound of farofa.
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Then night falls and stagehands get ready for showtime. The tenor of Restaurant Row changes. The peckish tourists clamber off on their double-decker buses and the theater crowd comes. This lot is a far cry from the mink stoles and black-tie tales of Broadway crowds bygone, and not only because it’s so hot I sweat from folds I never knew I had. But at Barbetta, at least, some elegance remains. Barbetta, old regina of the row, founded in 1906 by Sebastiano Maioglio, an immigrant from Piemonte, and still owned by his daughter, Laura. It was in the garden of Barbetta that Lindsay spouted his mayoral cant, and it was in the upper rooms where John Jacob Astor III lived, and it is in the dining room tonight where tuxedoed waiters weave, the old-man unicorn spawn of Emmett Kelly and Max von Sydow. One is Eduardo Maglio, a sexagenarian maitre d’ from Argentina, who thrusts upon me a very large menu. Barbetta is so old it has left a trail of anniversaries behind it. It’s celebrating its 75th on the door, its 110th on the menu, and its 112th in reality.
A mix of vintage and contemporary-ish dishes, the menu is written in a florid if approachable J. Peterman style no longer au courant. “Oven baked Onion filled with a delicate fontina puree — Wow!” reads one entry. Elsewhere on the menu the diner is admonished to “Eat like a Pope!” Pope Francis’s favorite food is bagna cauda, an anchovy-and-olive sauce from Piemonte — according, at least, to the menu of Barbetta. But I figured, What the hell? Why not eat like the pope? Alas, the bagna cauda here isn’t exactly divine. There’s no cauldron in which to bathe the vegetables. Instead the sauce comes pooled atop little roasted red peppers like a cat’s mess on a carpet. An unappetizing appetizer aesthetically, it actually overperforms, as the anchovies — often underplayed unconscionably — are admirably and assertively administered. Much more ethereal are the gnocchi. According to Eduardo, they are the best in the world, but by my word it’s otherworldly altogether. Less sickle cell and more globule, and so light they would float up from the Piemonte cheese sauce if not for the scattered toasted pine nuts and thin ribbons of basil, exactly fourteen gnocchetti come in the $19 half-portion. That’s $1.35 per gnocchetto, slightly less than a minute of therapy but equally soothing. Worth it.
I bid Eduardo farewell, snoop around the coat room and a strange small sitting room with an ornately decorated harpsichord, open but unplayed, and a collection of porcelain dogs, and never want to leave. This is my place; emptiness is home. But leave I must.
Full, of course, but intrepid, I head to Joe Allen, one of the few spots on the block worth visiting. Allen owns not only his titular bar and restaurant but Orso, a refined Tuscan restaurant next door, and Bar Centrale next door. The vibe at Joe Allen is less historic than at Barbetta and less neglected than at Le Rivage. It’s well-populated by 8:30 p.m. I sit at the bar, reading Alan Richman’s saturnine profile of the man himself, who apparently is quite reticent, and eating a major-chord cheeseburger — nice intervals, nothing added, fulsome. I bide my time until the George Gee Swing Orchestra takes the backroom stage across the street at Swing 46, one of the slate of nightclubs on the Row. Besides the formless bars that do not warrant a mention, there’s Bottoms Up, which, unsurprisingly, is a gay bar; the Ritz, similarly gay, though less titularly so; and Don’t Tell Mama, a piano bar where I will end my night.
Swing 46 is one of those places I’ve always dismissed as a tourist trap, but as I sit at the bar alone — je suis toujours seul — I realize how wrong I was. Down with the $15 cover but not the $2 drink minimum, I’m just outside the back room, where the band plays. It’s a good enough vantage point — one can hear them rip through “Take the A Train” and “The Shadow of Your Smile”and other classics — and, as I soon find out, this is where the close-knit community of swing dancers gather to talk shop. As Tori, a third-year student at New York Law School — she wants to practice estate law — tells me, “There’s even a Facebook group called ‘Swing 46 tonight?’ ” Here, on the banquette, the dancers change from their street shoes into shiny patent leather or sparkly ones. Dancing shoes! They come to wear dancing shoes and dance with one another in the back room of a midtown jazz club. Perhaps it is that the cocktail I’m holding, a Manhattan, is large and strong, or that I’ve had a few already? I almost tear up watching the bodies sway and swing in the other room. They hold one another and twirl as the music plays; meaning, connection, joy. The musicians trade solos, but no one’s alone.
I gotta get out of here, too many FEEELINGS, not cool to cry. And anyway, next door at Don’t Tell Mama, the pianist is already onstage and I promised myself not to miss him. The piano bar is narrow and divey, more like a dorm room than a venue: a wall of mirrors and a few rickety tables. When I walk in, the tables are crowded with a few tipsy ladies with highlights in their hair, and a couple of theater queens sitting in the front in pastel polos, and a strange four-top of hipsters staring at their phones, and me, at the bar, drinking — by this point — seltzer but tipping the bartender generously. He needs it. He’s a big dude, baby-faced, named Tommy Dose. On the black-and-whites is a guy named Paddy, goes by Paddy on the Piano. When I walk in, he’s midway through Billy Joel’s “Vienna.” Paddy relies a little too heavily on bass-note flourishes, muddying the melody, but I know the words, love the song, sing along.
Tommy is doing a brisk business in watery domestics along with another bartender. Some sixty-year-old guy who looks like he wandered in from a lower-tier country club has taken it as a personal affront that Tommy has demanded a credit card to open a tab. “I’m not going to stiff you!” he says. “I know,” says Tommy, “but it’s the policy.” The man throws a twenty down angrily. “I told you I wasn’t going to fucking stiff you.” Tommy rolls his eyes, and I wonder how many of these small shitty interactions it takes to stifle the soul of a man.
And then, from the stage, Paddy calls toTommy, and Tommy goes to Paddy. And it turns out Tommy can sing, boy can he sing. Accompanied by Paddy, he belts out that Hozier song “Take Me to Church” in a heartfelt baritone that, mostly, eschews vampy musical theater. If I almost bawled to Ellington and swing steps next door, this is certainly too much for me to process emotionally. Tommy is so big his head almost touches the ceiling, and his voice is so big it squeezes the drunks and the dicks to the margins. He fills the room with the sound and heart. It’s beautiful, one of those moments of benediction you pray for every day in this city. I should’ve known. Here in midtown, bartenders are singers and singers are bartenders and empty rooms are temples, and crowded rooms are sanctified, and the human condition, with its unyielding need to connect, is laid bare.
This is what I think: You can eat much better nearly anywhere else in New York. To answer Mayor Lindsay’s outdated question — “Where else in the world, except possibly Paris, could you get sixteen of the best restaurants collected in such a short strip of land?” —the answer is in any of the current food courts or food halls that besmirch our city’s dining scene. But what you can’t get in a stall with a common dining room and free Wi-Fi is this depth of feeling, a complete immersion, an entire ecosystem. There is no other block like Restaurant Row, where dreams and desires, lunch and love, and the heartbreakingly tender chorus of the human heart are heard sung so clear. Not even in Paris.
The refrigerated case at Bali Kitchen in the East Village is the size of a casino slot machine and bears virtually as many exciting fruity combinations. Under fluorescent lights, usual-suspect American sodas sit alongside custom-bottled soft drinks flavored with pineapple and ginger, juice box cartons of jasmine or cinnamon-tinged Indonesian teas, and what look like more sodas but are actually cans of “milk peanut soup,” a sugary legume potage. Better still are the sealed plastic cups of house-made fruit drinks ($3-$7): floral lychee and magenta-hued rambutan iced teas crowded with pulpy flesh and whole fruit; creamy avocado stained with swirls of chocolate syrup; and a frothy durian juice, equal parts stinky and sweet.
Cendol ($6) blurs the lines between drink and dessert. If you like the gummi worm concoction known as dirt pudding, you’ll no doubt enjoy digging through this refreshing mess of coconut milk zapped with palm sugar and brimming with strands of rice-flour jelly tinted green from vanilla-like pandan leaf. Other chilled sweets ($4-$5) peek out from disposable ramekins, like multicolored, mildly tart jackfruit custards (vegan and non-) topped with cubes of coconut jelly. Klappertaart, a gooey, raisin-studded coconut cake that harks back to Indonesia’s Dutch colonial past, is a mainstay. And if you’re so inclined, it’s recently been joined by a similar cake that swaps out coconut for durian, the pungent fruit mellowing as it bakes. There are prepared tofu salads ($7.95) in the cold case, too, mosh pits of firm bean curd with diced long beans and shredded coconut or a swarm of pineapple, hard-boiled eggs, and crunchy, slightly bitter emping — deep-fried chips made from the seeds of the melinjo plant — waiting to be tossed with jalapeño and peanut dressings.
Hungrier folk will want to seek out the sprawling picture menu that stretches across half of the wall, or consult with the smaller chalkboard menu next to it that lists the full rundown plus a few seasonal specials, like sayur lodeh ($4.95), a heavenly coconut milk and root vegetable stew suffused with lemongrass, lime leaves, candlenuts, and the maritime funk of dried shrimp. It can be ordered with chunks of tempeh, though chopped sweet shrimp more soulfully speak to the soup’s already briny, citrusy punch.
The eight-seat restaurant, which takes up a whitewashed sliver of a storefront on East Fourth Street, comes from spouses David Prettyman, an erstwhile aid worker who coordinates City Harvest’s Greenmarket food rescues, and Jazz P. Souisay, an artist and fashion designer from eastern Java who is also the head chef here. They opened Bali Kitchen just shy of a year ago with an eye toward takeout and delivery. Everything is served in compostable containers and with eco-friendly flatware. Vegetarian alternatives abound. It’s a boon not only to the neighborhood, but to a city that, despite its wide-ranging dining options, only has about a dozen or so restaurants devoted to Indonesian cuisine.
While Bali is where the couple met more than two decades ago, Souisay’s menu hopscotches around the Indonesian archipelago, paying tribute to the diverse cooking traditions spread throughout the country’s 13,000-plus islands. Soto ayam Ambengan ($11.95) hails from Surabaya, the city where he grew up. The turmeric-spiked chicken noodle soup is as comforting a bowl as you could hope for, full of rice cakes, fragrant fried garlic, half a boiled egg, and the plump, Dutch-influenced potato fritter called perkedel. A squeeze of lime bolsters the gently sour lemongrass broth.
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Two kinds of Indonesia’s staggering number of regional grilled sate skewers are offered. Both are excellent. Served as an entrée with chewy coconut rice cakes and spicy pickled mango, sate Makassar ($13.95), named for a city on the southern coast of Sulawesi, finds lightly charred chicken reveling in a glaze of peanut dressing and a tart sauce made with bilimbi, a cousin of the starfruit. Balinese sate lilit ($6.95), meanwhile, is a ginger-and-turmeric–packed appetizer of chicken, swai fish, or mushrooms ground with shredded coconut and formed around pronged sticks like oblong meatballs. Dip them into Bali’s sambal matah, a raw shallot-lemongrass relish that delivers a feisty kick.
Noodle and rice dishes make up the heartiest meals. Souisay’s beef rendang ($13.95) is worth the trip alone. The glorious flood of saucy brisket is cooked down for six to eight hours in coconut milk fortified with, among other things, galangal, star anise, and makrut lime, until the sauce thickens and the meat relaxes in a fork-tender heap. Ladled next to sautéed greens and a spoonful of sambal, it’s sensationally aromatic and filling. There are also fried egg and garlic cracker-topped stir fries of wheat or cellophane noodles ($10.95) and dabu dabu ($14.95), chicken or fish smothered in a vibrant mango-pineapple salsa that feels summer appropriate. Bali Kitchen’s nasi goreng ($10.95), a nationally beloved fried rice, is liberally laced with the Indonesian sweet soy sauce kecap manis, though the condiment fades into the background in nasi goreng kampung ($11.95), which adds shrimp paste, bitter beans, and an abundance of dried krill and baby anchovies to the equation for an eye-opening rush of concentrated fermented oceanic salinity. Sate lilit reappears in the nasi campur bali ($14.95), joining gingery simmered chicken breast, tempeh strips, diced long beans, and sambal-covered hard-boiled eggs, all placed around a mound of jasmine rice. For nasi kuning ($12.95), a vegetarian version, the rice is turmeric and stewed mushrooms are the star.
One of the cooks, David Silva, is in charge of all of the desserts. His greatest achievement isn’t found in the refrigerated case, but instead hangs out by the register among the assorted fried snacks under glass domes. Called lapis legit ($4.50) or spekkoek in Dutch, the dense and buttery layer cake is another vestige of colonialism. With more than twenty layers, it takes hours to make. The end result is as precious as a piece of jewelry, redolent of pandan and cinnamon and doled out in diminutive striped slices. Like Bali Kitchen, it’s a brief taste of Indonesia that speaks volumes.
In the summer in New York, everything is covered in airborne grit; it’s not anything so clean and fine as dust, and not quite ash, just ambient black specks pirouetting through the air in a kind of Brownian motion toward any uncovered surface. Every arm and thigh in the city is slick with sweat: When the air isn’t still and glassed-in like a hot bell jar, it’s buffeted by moist, swollen zephyrs. It takes a thunderstorm to wring all that humidity out of the air, let the crust of grime wash from buildings down to the street, where by noon it will dry out enough to flake to bits, and be cast forth on the wet hot wind.
Everyone with enough money deserts the city for weeks at a time. Select portions of Upper Manhattan look not dissimilar to an evangelical church after the Rapture: Behind the high windows is an enormous absence. Those left behind are free to envision orthodontically perfect grins and bronzed limbs sprawled out by the sea, while we gasp for air.
By August, it’s the proles and tourists that control the sidewalks. The entire psychiatric profession hits pause. The air gets thick as caramel; the sun a disc of violent light; the thunder starts long before the rain arrives, if it ever does. The bodega line grows to conga length, and everybody’s buying ice. It gets hard to eat.
There are days when it’s so hot outside — or the A/C is on the fritz or just dripping feebly — that the whole damp fabric of the heat hovers like a chloroformed rag around my face. On days like this, my throat feels pinched and arid. It begrudgingly accepts cold water and cold coffee and little else.
Running on cigarettes and stimulants, I get shaky. My brain feeds on itself and excretes neuroses. Bad memories waft up in brackish gusts — loves lost and friendships ended, searing fumes of shame and regret. It’s too hot to become a madwoman in an attic — heat rises — but it’s also too hot to control my nerves and my anger, my fear of the future and rumination on the past.
All this is my betrayal of an essentially American doctrine of resilience. In this country, we are supposed to turn suffering into motivation; the will to work ought to stay intact no matter the time of year. The flow of capital never ceases, and neither should you. In New York, city of wealth and capitol of capital, the doctrine of work reigns in the congested streets from the north Bronx down to Brooklyn, condenses in the air and runs down our clenched jaws in salty drops. The pursuit of success — in work, in love, in investments — should never stop or sleep; neither should you, even if, in the heat, all you want to do is halt your bloom.
On days like this, I have precisely one solution to get out of this crucible of inner bile. It’s not medicine or moderate exercise or even HVAC repair. It’s not Superman’s icy Fortress of Solitude, or a ticket to the tropics. In fact it will cost less than ten dollars and only a few blocks’ worth of fortitude. It will require a blender, a few tomatoes, a piece of old bread, a little oil and vinegar and salt. It will require someone to feed, even if that someone is only hungry, baking, trembling little you.
There’s a quiet alchemy to cooking — a stillness of the mind brought on by rhythmic actions of the hands. There’s a congruity of mental and physical effort that’s rare in my life, so driven by a restless and self-cannibalizing mind, that I come to crave it. I enjoy cooking more than I enjoy eating; when drunk or anxious or sad, I cook too much, more than I can eat, and scramble to find hungry friends. Peeling garlic — slipping the pale cloves out one by one, prying the skins loose with my thumbnail – is a small act; peeling a head of garlic, mincing it, letting it foam aromatically in sizzling butter, is a little reclamation.
I got divorced a few years ago and fell apart spectacularly. I cried in public so often I learned the etiquette of crying in public — minimize noise, carry tissues, mutely shake your head if ever offered help. (New York City is a wonderful city in which to cry in public, as no one wants to offer any help.) A month ago I left a very good job in less-than-ideal circumstances, and I found out the muscle memory of grief was intact in me. Each circumstance represented my life diverting from a path that was easy to explain, appealing on paper; if not authentically ennobling, or enough to make me happy, being married and working at an institution with an excellent reputation were circumstances I could point to as external evidence of my worth.
In the aftermath of each I had to learn — slower than I’d hoped — how to rebuild myself piecemeal. Absent a husband, I had to muster friends who didn’t mind my ghostly presence on their couches, as I struggled not to disappear into my own grief. Absent the good job, I found out who cared about me only because of the job, or who would let the taint of scandal drive them away.
Each time, I learned to let fragments of me die and turned to nourish other parts. When the clamor in my head overcame me, I let my hands work at the cutting board, in the slow, sawing rhythm of return.
In the full and ghastly heat of summer, or in the grip of powerful emotion, it can be too much to ask of yourself to stand in front of a stove. Enter the cold soup — friend of the weary and the scorched. I have built a repertoire over the years — gazpacho foremost, but also other exemplars of the genre: Russian yogurt-and-radish soup, Hungarian sour-cherry soup, French vichyssoise topped with a fan of chives. Each asks so little of you and gives so much. There are few things on this Earth that can quench your thirst and fill your belly and soothe your restless heart at once.
In each crisis of mine in recent years, there was one friend who distinguished herself — who visited me in my mouse-infested first post-divorce apartment; who gathered my things and helped me move away from it; who slept in my bed when I couldn’t stop shaking, and watched marathons of sleazy true-crime shows with me. In Russian, one term for a perennial companion is a sobutilnik — “a friend who will share a bottle with you.” My own spin on this excellent word would be someone willing to make soup with you; to chop and blend and pour into the bowl. My best friend’s avid delight at the punch of garlic in the mix is better than rubies. There is little better than someone who understands that what you offer, when you offer a perfect soup, is all your love.
I first tasted Andalusian gazpacho in Spain with my mother; I made it for the first time with the man who would become my husband. It differs from most gazpachos I have encountered in America in that it is thick and smooth, a soup, not a salsa in a glass. The key is a heel of stale bread, which, when combined with olive oil, binds the broth, thick and cool and pale. When my husband left me I waited a year and made it again. Now I have made it for my mother, for friends, and even for myself, the first to receive my ire, the last to receive my gifts.
In the dog days of summer, when the grass dries pasta-pale, wildfires fill the news, and the skies portend collapse, find yourself a soup companion, and make gazpacho. Make too much — ideally, enough to fill the biggest container you have. Like resilience, you have to make it yourself; like healing, it will look a little different each time. Like forgiving yourself, it will brace you, make you stand upright again, cease the tremor in your hands. With each cold sour spoonful I restore myself, dilute the bile in my mind and my heart, return. Vinegar and oil and bread, bell pepper, cucumber, tomato, whirred and poured into a jar and sealed for tomorrow, and eaten at midnight anyway. One trip to the grocery store is all it takes me to remember that — even wending my way circuitously in a world of straight lines — I am moving forward, that there is cool and comfort to be had in this ashen city I love.
Andalusian-Style Gazpacho Serves 2 to 4
1 pound vine tomatoes (don’t use beefsteak tomatoes, please) 2 medium-size cucumbers 1 fresh green bell pepper 1 small red onion 2 cloves fresh garlic 1 chunk stale bread, ideally French or Italian A few generous glugs of olive oil (about a cup) Two generous pours (about 2 tablespoons) of red wine or sherry vinegar Salt and pepper to taste
1. Soak the bread in water for five or ten minutes, then squeeze it out with your fist till it’s a soggy solid.
2. Chop up all the vegetables and the garlic. De-seed the cucumbers and tomatoes unless you like tomato seeds getting stuck in your teeth.
3. Put all of the above in your blender or food processor.
4. Add the liquid ingredients and spices.
5. Pulse until it turns a pale red, reminiscent of vodka sauce.
Everyone comes to New York to gape slack-jawed at beauty — unless, of course, you’re beautiful, in which case you’ve come here to be adored, or you’re already here, in which case, having been surrounded by both beauty and ugliness in profusion, you are insensate to it.
As a young man — not even eighteen years old — I arrived in New York in the summer of ’99, unbeautiful, suburban, and sponge-like. I was ready to be impressed. I lived in an NYU dormitory on Union Square with a flip phone, a laptop full of Napster-nabbed tunes, and a kid named Jason who snored so loudly that I at first took his wall-shaking snorts to be the subway below. We lived a few doors down from the Coffee Shop, a shimmering 24-hour disco ball of a restaurant and bar, full of stunningly beautiful, arctically cool, actually glamorous gods and demigods for whom Manhattan was Olympus and the herbed french fries they served there ambrosia. But heaven doesn’t last forever. As was announced this month, the Coffee Shop will close its doors in October.
Twenty years ago, the Coffee Shop beckoned like a shiny object does a crow. Opened in 1990 by a trio of Wilhelmina models — Charles Milite, Eric Petterson, and Carolyn Benitez — the Coffee Shop trafficked in physical, some might say superficial, beauty. The pleasingly retro dining room and bar operates under a Byzantine system of seating, no less codified than such tony redoubts as the Four Seasons, Michael’s, and Elaine’s. But unlike in those restaurants, where power was determined by wealth, position, or publishing numbers, at the Coffee Shop, beauty was the only salient metric. For an unsure nube like me, the appeal was evident. One didn’t just receive a Sesame Chicken Salad. The order of the world and your place in it was revealed. The maître d’ was God, and how we trembled waiting for judgment.
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Alas, being all of seventeen and looking like I was twelve, I was routinely barred entrance, or else allowed passage only to the To Go podium, where I’d order a milkshake and a side of ambrosial fries, then return to my bedroom, to read of Odysseus and Nausicaa all the while fantasizing about what hedonistic fun the real-life nymphs were having but a few feet away. It turns out all my jizzy fantasies were true, as were other fantasies too nuanced and mature for my vulgar mind to concoct at the time.
When I heard of the closing, I reached out to Courtney Yates, who worked at the Coffee Shop for six years between 2004 and 2010. Yates is, as one might expect from a Coffee Shop alumna, a bona fide BP. She is not the most famous Coffee Shop employee — having only appeared on Survivor, twice — but, due to a 2007 Grub Street article, the most Googleable. Other notable alumni include Laverne Cox and — this made me flip my wig — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez when she was just Sandy from the Bronx. Now, Yates lives in Sugar Hill, Harlem, USA. She works as an astrologer, massage therapist, and yoga teacher, but for six years of the Coffee Shop’s prime, she was both arbiter of beauty and its prime embodiment. She agreed to meet me for dinner recently at 8:30 p.m., a time I had assumed would be peak people-watching.
A little after we were supposed to meet: “I’m on my way but, as you know the MTA is trash,” she texted. So I entered through the Coffee Shop’s glass doors alone. At once, the feelings of existential uncertainty flooded back again, after so many years. If you’ve ever walked into a cafeteria as a new student, tray in hand and lump in throat, you know the feeling. I hadn’t come to the Coffee Shop in a decade; neither — apparently — had many others, thus the restaurant’s impending closure. And yet, so ingrained was the sensation of judgment, of stepping up to receive one’s sentence from on high, that I quailed at the host stand. The gentleman — handsome, forty, flirty, fab — led me back to a two-top behind the bar, where I sat wondering what it all meant.
When she finally arrived, Yates said, a little apologetically, “Ah, #34. You’re a normal.” When I was younger, I would have been crushed. Middle-aged now, I realize, yes, I am a normal. Normal is OK. Normal is normal. Yates, on the other hand, was and is beautiful, and I wondered, as I browsed the sort of wonderfully normcore menu, how she felt seeing the world from #34.
Though we were separated only by a small table, the delta between Courtney and I was vast. For me, the Coffee Shop was a terrifying adjudication of self-worth. For Yates, and the thousands of other model/waiters who worked there, it was the start of a glorious life in New York. “When I came here,” she said, “I didn’t know anyone.” She was a twenty-two-year-old model from Boston hired by Benitez, who was in charge of all staffing, and soon initiated into the Club of Beautiful People, a counterintuitively inclusive demographic. “Since we were all beautiful,” explains Yates, “no one was jealous or judgmental. We were like a Benetton ad.” She recounts with glee the hijinks and camaraderie of Coffee Shop survivors, who braved groping, grabbing, gooing, and gawing from the “Perve Curve,” a section of the undulating bar from which lascivious barflies cheesed on spindly waiters picking up their cocktails. She recalls the joy of the $2 staff menu and buying meals for assholes for the sole purpose of being able to tell them to go fuck themselves. “And I never got in trouble for it,” she says, still amazed after all these years.
Yates remembers the best section was the normals in the back, because it was always full, whereas the tables reserved for the beautiful and the famous — tables 6, 7, 8, and 9 — frequently sat empty. She recalls Nelly and Ashanti cuddling at table 101 in the back-back room, and David LaChapelle stopping by for brunch, like, all the time. She remembers how much she hated Susan Sarandon, a friend of the owner’s, for insisting that milkshakes stay on the menu — an item that, as any waiter anywhere will tell you, is a pain in the ass to make. “I can forgive her for coming out against Hillary,” says Yates, “but not the milkshakes.” She not only remembers her friends from the Coffee Shop, but still is friends with her friends from the Coffee Shop.
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For Yates, everything flowed from here. It was here — exactly here at table #34 — where, after telling off a drunk d-bag, she was approached by a producer from CBS to appear on Survivor, which she did, twice, once in China and once as a villain on the Heroes vs. Villains season. It was here and, more precisely, around the corner where she’d repair after her shift to drink at the Park Bar until morning. It was here where she formed the sorts of friendships that do not decay with time. Friendships with guys like Ted, another waiter, older now, who still cat-sits for her. Ted isn’t hot. He’s awesome. He’s a school teacher who lives in the Bronx, teaches English to ESL students, and, hustling, has worked nights at the Coffee Shop since time immemorial. It’s Ted, Guardian Angel of Coffee Shop waiters, who is one of those quietly necessary people who cohere bonds of friendship and bonhomie, who keep things together when everything else falls apart.
The food comes. The best that can be said about it is that it is, indeed, food. The cheeseburger is, in fact, a cheeseburger. If I had ordered a grilled cheese, I’m sure it would be that. I imagine the calamari fritto would be either fried squid rings or fried bleached pig anuses. I would eat it either way and care little. Food was always the beard at the Coffee Shop. The real feast was for the eyes. Was.
As she looked around the half-full dining room, Yates seemed nonplussed. “What I tell my friends is that death is a part of life. The space and energy of the Coffee Shop will dissipate, to pop up in other aspects of your life.” Though she hasn’t worked there for years, Yates knew almost all the bussers and food runners and kitchen staff. “They’re here for years,” she says, “but the servers aren’t. Beauty turns over fast.”
Today there’s something noble, tragic, and just about the Coffee Shop. Its avowed insistence on physical beauty seems awkwardly out of step in today’s culture. But like a silent movie star who refuses talkies, the Coffee Shop is too proud or has too much integrity to adapt. Tables 6, 7, 8, and 9 are still reserved for the beautiful and famous patrons who will most likely never come again. Normals, like me, are still tucked, lonely, out of sight. The order of the world is preserved, even as that world disappears.
On the way out, Yates and I ran into Charles Milite, one of the owners. He’s in his fifties now, and, as with any older model, the sharpness of his features had been blotted by time. He was just passing by. He doesn’t go in much at all now. But he seemed to take the end of the Coffee Shop with a measure of equanimity and humor. “It’s going to make a great Chase Bank,” he said, flashing a sad smile that twinkled fetchingly in the hot night of a much changed city, one no longer with room for the Coffee Shop and all its beauties.
“RUM,” promises the blazing-red neon sign announcing Chicha Cafetín and Cocktail, a splashy new Nicaraguan-inclined party hangar that opened in May near the Jefferson L stop. The letters cast a glow onto this quiet stretch of Randolph Street that recalls pre-revolution Havana or the best of Art Deco Miami. Thankfully, it’s no mere ornament. The bustling Bushwick warehouse restaurant offers around a hundred different expressions of sugarcane-based spirits doled out in tasting-friendly one- or two-ounce pours, from grassy Brazilian cachaças to El Dorado’s smooth, earthy Guyanese Demerara rums to cult bottles like Gosling’s Family Reserve Old Rum, an extra-aged black rum from Bermuda that’s nearly as syrupy and darkly sweet as the molasses it’s fermented from.
One you might not have tried before is clairin, Haiti’s minimally processed, typically unaged rhum agricole made from sugarcane syrup or freshly pressed sugarcane juice. Only recently arrived stateside, it is to Big Rum what artisanal mescal is to mass-market tequila: a small-batch kindred spirit steeped in centuries of tradition and terroir marked by distinct characteristics that vary from producer to producer, and sometimes from batch to batch. Of the three available, I was bowled over by the full-bodied Clairin Vaval, which is fermented with wild yeasts and distilled in a custom rig built from, among other things, car parts.The intensely sharp clear liquor, so pungent it tickles your nose with an herbal astringency and peppery snap after each sip, is indeed a wild ride.
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Another, the barely milder Clairin Sajous, makes its way into one of partner and bar director Marshall Altier’s overtly Instagrammable $14 craft cocktails called the Blufields Swizzle. Stained a purplish ombre thanks to the addition of butterfly pea flowers, the tropical, fruity sipper mixes in banana liqueur and coconut cream, plus three other strong white rums (from Nicaragua, Jamaica, and Oaxaca), for a drink that looks and tastes like a trippy piña colada. Altier rounds out his beverage list with $13 cocktails on tap (the Nitro Cafecito, which mingles rum, cacao, cherry liqueur, and cold brew coffee, is particularly invigorating), Nicaraguan craft beer, zippy pitaya limeade, and sodas infused with both fruit and spice and made in-house. Whether it’s while posted up at the stunning, soaring bar with locals wearing vibe-appropriate florals and pastels that match the colorful design, sitting beneath a Nicaraguan wood backsplash next to a dozen rowdy off-duty high school teachers, or perched at the front countertop that looks out onto a nondescript beige brick building across the street, imbibing here is blissfully rewarding.
So is much of the cooking from co-owner Vanessa Palazio, the Brooklyn-born daughter of Nicaraguan immigrants, whose familial ties and travels through the country inform a modern Nica menu full of rarely seen dishes that embraces the vibrancy of the restaurant’s decor and drinks program. In her hands, the Latin-American staple of chicken cooked with rice becomes arroz con pollo arancini ($12), a trio of Arborio rice croquettes laced with olives, peppers, and shreds of tender slow-cooked bird that speaks to the virtues of frying everything. Salpicon, a meat hash, takes a provocative turn as jarred short rib rillettes ($18) under layers of pepper jelly and smoked coconut. Somehow both refreshing and deeply beefy, it is spread onto giant, craggy chips made from puffed rice and beans, a nod to gallo pinto, the country’s version of the iconic Latin combo. Elotitos ($11) riff on the cheesy, peppery fondue of baby corn called guiso de chilotes. Repackaged as a handheld snack, the stack of tiny grilled cobs showered with grated queso seco are delightful when dipped into auburn-hued smoked guajillo chile sauce.
Then there are her quesillos ($4.50–$7.50), the open-faced, corn tortilla-bound street food loaded with melty hand-pulled cheese that’s somewhere between a taco and a sope in thickness. Before opening Chicha together, Palazio and her husband, Adam Schneider, ran a DUMBO pop-up specializing in the dish. Here, the rounds have been shrunk down to “bar bite” size. Made from masa milled in-house, all are worth investigating. The simplest highlights the cheese with a ladle of crema and plantain vinegar–pickled onions; the fanciest plunks sweet, well-cooked lobster claw meat onto a dark squid-ink tortilla. Best are the ones with shredded roast chicken and sour orange–cooked baho-style pork shoulder, which pack an al pastor–like wallop of flavor.
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Palazio also compellingly cradles pork shoulder with plantains and crispy rice in banana leaves for a large-format entrée of baho ($24) served with more tortillas, and sears skirt steak ($27) to an admirable medium-rare that’s perfect with jalapeño salsa and a nest of crispy taro root shoestring fries. Also ideal for sharing is whole roasted sea bream ($28), the flaky fish perked up by tomatillo-corn relish and a bright, acerbic vinaigrette tinted orange with achiote.
End your evening modestly with seasonal ice creams and sorbets ($9) — on a recent evening, watermelon was a juicy treat — or in a blaze of glory with maduras infiernos ($13), ice cream scooped into a bowl of crisp, fluffy plantain churros and set next to a puddle of booze-fueled fire. Or do as Chicha’s sign commands and send yourself off with a nip of rum.
Last weekend, Vivien Sansour, founder of the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library, was on a quick stopover in New York City, from her home in Beit Jala, a small town in the West Bank, on her way to New Haven, Connecticut, a small city on the East Coast. Later in the week, she’d give a talk at the newly opened Palestine Museum US, about her mission to preserve and propagate the nearly extinct varietals of Palestinian farmers. She’d be telling the story of wheats like the Handsome Dark One; legendary watermelons like the J’adii; khyar abyad, white cucumbers of immense flavor; and Baladi tomatoes, a type known for its resiliency. Not only do the seeds need saving but so too do the farmers, whose land has been stolen, water diverted, and selves deracinated. But she was in New York and hungry, and so we ended up in Bay Ridge, at Tanoreen, one of New York City’s few Palestinian restaurants and its best by far.
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Tanoreen’s owner, Rawia Bishara, was born in Nazareth and followed her husband to the United States in 1973. In 1998, after raising two children, she opened the place with only ten seats. Bishara is an elegant and regal woman who runs the now-expanded restaurant with her daughter, Jumana Bishara. As with many Palestinians, a gentle sadness envelopes her like mist as she moves about the dining room. It is the sadness of a woman far from home, the melancholy of the dispossessed, and it diffuses her radiant smile, which glows rather than shines.
Those who know what’s what order from Tanoreen’s ever-changing menu of daily specials. That’s where we find the makdous peppers, the hybrid of Rawia’s family’s recipes and the pepper proclivities of her Latino chefs. Bright poblano and jalapeño peppers are roasted and stuffed with a traditional mixture of walnuts, red pepper, and spicy harissa. That’s where we find molokhia, a type of Egyptian mallow once eaten by kings. Falafel and hummus are on the menu, too. Though delicious, they’re 101 shit, the chicken tenders of the Levant.
The menu is a manifesto for the full personhood of Palestinians. “I hated how we were looked at and how we as Palestinians were perceived,” Bishara explained. “It is so wrong and there was no way to fix it but one to one. They have to see that we are not what they think we are.” What comes out of the kitchen is Palestinian home cooking — endless variants of rice and lamb, found formed into kibbie balls and stuffed into eggplants and peppers; nakanek, a homemade lamb sausage studded with pine nuts; hummus plain and hummus with beets — and that can’t help but lead the eater to contemplate the Palestinian homes with Palestinian mothers in Palestinian kitchens or, in the case of Bishara, Palestinian fathers, too. “My father always used to help my mother,” she says, on one of her table-side visits, “but he’d close the kitchen door so no one could see.”
This project of humanization has worked, within limits. “People still sometimes come in and ask my mom where she’s from,” explains Jumana Bishara, who earned a master’s degree in Middle East studies from the American University in Cairo before joining the family business a decade ago. “She says, ‘Palestine,’ and they say Palestine doesn’t exist. Well, they’re here, and they’re eating food from somewhere.”
Negation of the land takes a more concrete form in the work of Sansour. From her childhood, Sansour remembers the ancient terraces that turned the hills of Beit Jala into green carpets. (In fact, Beit Jala means “green carpet” in Aramaic.) “When I miss home,” she says, “I miss the sound of a rock hitting the shell of an almond,” she tells me. Sansour is a pretty woman with nut-brown eyes and olive skin wearing a white linen shirt with bright flowers embroidered on them. On the day I met her, she wore a pair of earrings from which dangled the ancient protective hamsa symbol and a hamsa necklace, and her wrists were heavy with hamsa bracelets that jingled as she pointed at one of Tanoreen’s excellent wines, a Hamdani Jandali blend from the Cremisan valley in the West Bank. “The whole area is now being confiscated,” she said, matter-of-factly. “The whole winery has been confiscated. It’s gone.”
After studying anthropology at East Carolina University and working with farmers in Uruguay, Sansour was shocked when she returned home in 2013 after years away. “All I saw was concrete, concrete, concrete. Terraces of concrete.” Gone were the beloved apricots and almond trees. The groves were replaced by a dense swarm of apartments built to accommodate the Palestinians herded off their land by the Occupation. This small ghetto was now surrounded by a ring of Israeli settlements that held the high ground of the valley, looming like an invading army. The farmers with whom Sansour had grown up had largely become day laborers at nearby Israeli-owned industrial agriculture operations. The Seed Library started with a search for the purple carrot.
“When I was growing up,” explains Sansour, as a plate of raw kibbie arrives, the minced lamb like a pink shag carpet under a sprig of mint and mounds of diced onion, “my mother would stuff these purple carrots with lamb and rice and serve it in a tamarind sauce. But when I returned, I couldn’t find the carrots anywhere.” Eventually Sansour found one old farmer who was hiding a crate of them in his trunk. “I felt like I was doing a drug deal,” she says. The farmer agreed to sell her two carrots, which she promptly planted in her family’s house, on one of the only remaining green carpets in Beit Jala. The seed of resistance had been planted.
“Stripping people’s ability to have food production was the last stronghold that would bring down the community,” says Sansour. “With each crop came a tradition, a practice, a story of who you are. So with each crop lost, it’s not just biodiversity but cultural diversity that’s lost as well.” The Heirloom Seed Library is animated by the same spirit of Slow Food in Italy and of community gardens in New York and, to some bougie-extent, of the farm-to-table movement around the country. It’s the idea that no one can be truly free if he does not have food sovereignty. So Sansour began crisscrossing the West Bank, tracking down seeds kept in the junk drawers of old farmers, and carefully coaxing them back to life.
She hunted these varietals like Alan Lomax did the Delta blues and, like the blues, these seeds were themselves the fruit of suffering and imagination, and like the blues they are divine and life-affirming. “Farmers are between artists and scientists,” Sansour tells me. “That these varieties exist at all are thanks to generations of Palestinian farmers who never stopped experimenting, never gave up on the land.” Wheats like the Handsome Dark One were bred over generations and generations. Yet it is this very humanity, this very human connection to the land, that the Israeli occupiers are obsessed with uprooting, whether by ringing the settlements with pine trees, which render the soil unarable, or with walls and fences, barring Palestinians from their ancestral villages. The anti-colonial struggle is both one of land and one of hearts. “We are told we are shit all the time,” says Sansour. “We have to be like the West to be of any value. But when you realize your grandmother and great-grandmothers developed this wheat and it is because of your grandmother and great-grandmother that the world eats cookies and cake, it’s a big shift. You begin to think maybe I’m not shit to begin with, and that is the true resistance.”
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Just then, Rawia Bishara arrives behind a caravan of striped bass, festooned with potatoes in a tomato sauce; a small plate of startlingly bright pickled vegetables; and a trio of baby squash into whose hollowed-out bodies are stuffed almonds and lamb. Great plumes of steam arise from the fish and from the squash as we cut their tender skin open. Usually simply a vessel for stuffing, these squash are unusually squash-like. They are not just a carrier but carry value themselves. The secret, Rawia says, is that these crops are grown by a Palestinian farmer in Pennsylvania according to the ancient practice of Ba’al. Ba’al agriculture, offers Sansour as Bishara looks on, is named after the Canaanite diety of fertility and destruction we know as Beelzebub, and is a farming technique in which crops grow with no man-made irrigation. Before irrigation, Ba’al was once a necessity, and now, with water in the West Bank being diverted to the settlements, it a necessity once again. But the result of this technique is vastly more flavorful, a vegetable that has had to fight to survive and through its struggle has found a way to thrive. “The idea you dare to try something in the desert is itself fucking revolutionary,” says Sansour. And the fact that you can try something like it at Tanoreen brings the revolution, the resistance, and at least a small measure of victory to Brooklyn.