Kathy YL Chan
Photos by Robert Caplin
The World on a Plate
Text by Shoko Wanger
The breadth of the New York restaurant scene is dazzling, but it’s also daunting. If a newcomer has only a few days in the city, I’d narrow down my suggestions to three spots—or more precisely three experiences—that are quintessentially New York.
On 52nd Street, amid the neon buzz of the theater district, Victor’s Café channels the glamour of old Havana. The three dining rooms ring with laughter. At the table next to you, there might be a family a dozen members deep toasting a birthday. Overhead, leaf-shaped fans sway lazily, as if guided by a breeze. It’s warm, convivial, tropical, and the spirit is unmistakably aloha. Victor’s has been owned by the same family since 1963, and dining here feels like you’ve been invited to the home of an old friend. In a city where hip too often trumps hospitable, it’s refreshing to hear a waiter say, “We are so proud to be serving these dishes to you.”
Kama‘aina will find reminders of home in the flavors, too. Mojitos come with thick stalks of sugar cane. Crispy plantain chips arrive arranged like flower petals in a paper-lined cone—a salty-sweet bird of paradise. The snapper in the ceviche de Pargo is paired with mango, its citrusy tang offset by buttery avocado. The shredded steak in the ropa vieja, a specialty at Victor’s and a Cuban classic, is texturally reminiscent of kalua pig and even comes with a scoop of white rice. For dessert the guayabitas de Maria is a sticky, jammy, guava-rich cobbler—“everyone’s favorite,” a server proclaimed as I took my first bite. It certainly was mine.
At Tocqueville, off Union Square, you are in another New York entirely. The first impression is of a private salon from another age. A chandelier with tiny shades on every bulb hangs from the ceiling. Tablecloths are white and crisp, servers attentive yet unobtrusive. Diners relax on seats nearly as soft as clouds, surrounded by walls the warm color of sand. Tocqueville is Marco Moreira and Jo-Ann Makovitzky’s labor of love. The husband and wife divide duties in the kitchen and the front of the house respectively. Mr. Moreira grew up in Brazil with a Japanese stepmother and trained as a sushi chef. His eclectic background and commitment to locally sourced ingredients informs a menu uniting classic French technique, American inventiveness and Japanese artistry. Bluefin tuna sashimi and tartar is accompanied by pickled papaya, lychee and, surprisingly, a pair of crisp, salt-speckled potato chips. Duck breast is bathed in a citrus star anise consommé. Sea urchin is opulently draped over angelhair pasta immersed in a sauce rich with butter, soy, ginger and lime.
Most glorious are the grits, a down-home dish made haute with truffles, veal bacon and an egg fried sunny side up. The dish arrives at the table hidden beneath a silver cloche. Warm and velvety, with a brilliant, canary-yellow yolk at the center, it resembles a sunburst—culinary poetry.
From Cuba to France and finally to Tokyo. The entrance to Kyo Ya is nearly invisible from the street; stairs lead down to an entrance on the bottom floor of an East Village apartment building. Inside, the wood-paneled walls almost appear to move, curving like the waves of the ocean. Sleek and understated, it’s an ideal backdrop for scene-stealing cuisine—even the restrooms blend seamlessly into the woodwork, hidden like secret portals. But for all its exquisite beauty, there’s not a trace of conceit. Tables are few, and the dining room is warmly lit.
There are Japanese restaurants in Hawai‘i, of course, but not many like this. Each course is presented in its own dishware, and the wait staff arranges it all with care and a smile—a footed ceramic bowl streaked with blue; a wooden box of wakame salt; a silver bowl spattered with orange and shaped like a teardrop. A cocktail glass nestled in ice cradles delicate cubes of sesame tofu while a woven basket transports loose-leaf tea in stout, hand-labeled jars.
Even seemingly familiar dishes are transformed. A bayberry drunk with wine brings a hint of sweetness to the miso-glazed black cod. The famous sweet potato tempura arrives at the table whole, its interior steamed, its skin crisp and feather-light. Its only attendants are a tiny pot of soy sauce and a thumbprint’s worth of Mongolian salt.
Pressed mackerel sushi is seasoned and arranged head to tail on a leaf-laden dish; no soy sauce necessary. For the adventurous there’s seafood shutoan—pan-fried scallops, steamed king crab and gently boiled shrimp in a bonito sauce made creamy with egg yolk; or ebi shinjo, orbs of shrimp mousse topped with crispy rice. Try milky yuba (tofu skin), paired with uni in a sauce studded with goji berries, or Kyo Ya’s take on the humble croquette, which adds gobo (burdock) to the traditional mashed potato recipe.
For your final taste of New York, I suggest the luscious “heavenly custard” presented in a simple, slender black cup. Butter-yellow, creamy as pudding, it comes adorned with a single, perfectly placed tapioca pearl. And yes, those glittering flecks are tiny shavings of edible gold.
236 West 52nd Street, (212) 586-7714
1 East 15th Street, (212) 647-1515
94 East 7th Street, (212) 982-4140
Buttons and Bows:
Text by Kathy YL Chan
When Lynne’s in the mood for serious shopping, she heads for the corner of 10th Avenue and 22nd Street. Beneath an old auto repair sign offering “Heavenly Body Works” is the entrance to a sleek tunnel made of aluminum that came from an English shipyard. Walk through and open the glass doors to Comme des Garçons, a sacred fashion ground. There’s so much to love: arresting blacks and whites, killer accessories, far-out and otherworldly clothing proportions. Lynne’s latest score: a black bucket bag, a light but sturdy number that can stand up on its own. When Lynne’s checking out bags, she says, she always does the “file test”: She drops in a file folder to see whether it fits. If it does, perfect—that bag qualifies to become the latest addition to her collection.
Next, cab it to ABC Carpet & Home, a six-floor must-see experience full of unique finds from all over the world. “Here,” says Lynne, “shopping is theater.” ABC offers a mind-boggling selection of home products, furniture, jewelry and antiques. The main floor is akin to a bazaar. Inside you’ll find stores within the store, including a Gary Graham women’s wear boutique full of gorgeous fabrics that wear with ease. (Lynne directed a presentation of Graham’s collection during New York Fashion Week in spring 2011 and notes him as a great, under-the-radar discovery.) Après shopping, dip one floor down to check out ABC Kitchen’s locavore-oriented menu: chili and basil heirloom tomatoes, raw diver scallops and market grapes, and the salted caramel ice cream sundae.
Across the street from ABC is Fishs Eddy, the go-to American dishware store for many a New Yorker. Lynne became a fan of Fishs Eddy (the name comes from a small town in upstate New York) shortly after it opened in 1986. “It’s like shopping in a barn full of Americana old and new,” she says. She’s partial to iconic NY-themed dishware patterns like the 212 New York Skyline and The New York Times Crossword Puzzle.
When Lynne wants a little dose of home, she heads downtown to Saturdays Surf, located on quaint and cobblestoned Crosby Street in SoHo. Here you can buy a surfboard while drinking cappuccino from the coffee bar. The partners produce Saturdays NYC, a line of casual menswear, board shorts included. They also carry accessories, grooming products, surfing books and art. The outdoor lanai at the back, where wetsuits are often hanging out to dry, is a meeting place for the hip downtown crowd. Lynne recalls how on a spring day she spotted one of the owners, Morgan Collett, walking in SoHo, surfboard under his arm; he’d just gotten off the subway from Rockaway Beach after a day of surfing. Who says you can’t merge surf and city life?
If you’re going to Opening Ceremony—which Lynne says you should—the original location on Howard Street is the one to visit. You’ll walk into a well-edited clothing selection from emerging and established designers such as Vena Cava, Alexander Wang and Rodarte—it’s like Barneys or Bergdorf’s for the younger crowd. Opening Ceremony offers constantly changing retail concepts; its 2011 collaboration with Reyn Spooner for a new take on Island wear might be of particular interest to locals.
From Opening Ceremony it’s a twominute walk to Pearl River, a Chinese emporium that went from two small stores in Chinatown to a multi-level building in SoHo. A serious riot of color with a little bit of everything: furniture, clothing, fabric, slippers, books, snacks, tea, cookware, lanterns and Buddhas. The staff tries to be helpful, but they don’t speak much English; it’s the real deal. Lynne shops at Pearl for the beaded house slippers, men’s Mao jackets and quirky and unusual gifts for under $10.
The best reward for a successful shopping adventure is something sweet.Empire Cake on 8th Avenue is Lynne’s favorite bakery in the city. Gourmet takes on classic American snack cakes are the highlights (think fancy Ho-Hos and Ding Dongs). The red velvet snack cake stuffed with whipped cream cheese is addicting, but save room for the liliko‘i (passion fruit) and lemon cream cakes. And don’t pass on the Swiss roll, a moist chocolate cake rolled with whipped cream and silky ganache. “I never understood the Swiss roll until now,” says Lynne. “You don’t have to go to any other bakery. But hurry because they run out!”
Comme des Garçons
520 West 22nd Street, (212) 604-9200
ABC Carpet & Home
888 Broadway, (212) 473-3000
889 Broadway, (212) 420-9020
31 Crosby Street, (212) 966-7875
35 Howard Street, (212) 219-2688
477 Broadway, (212) 431-4770
112 8th Avenue, (212) 242-5858
Find Your Funk
Text by Nate Chinen
Yes, New York City is an imposing monolith, but it’s also a patchwork of walkable neighborhoods, each with its own flavor and character. This is especially true of its music scene, which I cover as a critic, primarily for The New York Times. The secret truth is that I often do stitch together club-hopping itineraries for myself and for visiting guests. The particulars change depending on mood and preference, but a handful of staples usually end up in the running. We’re not talking about the usual tourist destinations; I love seeing a show at Radio City Music Hall—just like I love a sunset mai tai at the Moana Surfrider during my too-rare visits home. But that’s not where the real action lies, which is what we’ll be seeking over the course of two busy but feasible (and affordable!) NYC nights.
Night one begins with an early set at Jazz Standard, the city’s most congenial jazz club, celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. A basement room with crisp sound and a welcoming air, it presents an impeccable balance of established and upand- coming jazz talent, from saxophonist Lou Donaldson to trumpeter Jeremy Pelt. And it’s run by the peerless New York restaurateur Danny Meyer, who wrote the book on hospitality. (I mean that literally —his Setting the Table: The Power of Hospitality in Business was a New York Times bestseller in 2006.) We’ll be dining on authentic pit barbecue: hardy fuel for a long evening and a good dose of comfort for any Islander far from home (something about smoky, slow-cooked pork …).
After the set, there’s enough time for a salutary stroll down Park Avenue toward our next appointment at Joe’s Pub, the cabaret attached to the venerable Public Theater on Astor Place. Chic but never stuffy, and with better sightlines since a renovation last year, this club takes eclecticism as far as it’ll go. I’ve caught rappers, world-music icons and Broadway stars here; a few years ago I reviewed a gig by a nervous young Brit named Adele. So what’s on the agenda tonight? It’s up for grabs in the best way.
You could say much the same about The Living Room, a scruffier haunt on the Lower East Side a short cab ride away. This is the singer-songwriter hub made famous by Norah Jones, who still drops by, often to sit in with the likes of guitar slingers Jim Campilongo and Tony Scherr, who play one after the other on Mondays. The quality control is loose, so there’s always risk of a dud—but there’s usually no cover, the drinks are cheap and we’re yielding to our spirit of exploration here. The music ends late, though there’s still time for another drink or two along Ludlow Street before returning to base.
Our second night commences at the Village Vanguard, the oldest jazz club in the city and still the most prestigious. There’s no better room for acoustic jazz in the world, and its history feels palpable as soon as you clomp down its narrow entry stairwell. John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Bill Evans all made albums here; their modern counterparts, like Joe Lovano and Jason Moran, still do. And while not everyone appreciates the club’s grit, it’s all part of the vibe. For about a decade I lived just a few blocks away; that proximity, I often said, was one of the chief amenities of my apartment.
Another amenity was quick access to the L train, which zips across the East River into Williamsburg, Brooklyn. That’s the epicenter of postmillennial indie culture, and it’s where we’re headed next. The Music Hall of Williamsburg can be found on the remote end of a street full of bars, shops and restaurants. Its booking favors stylish indie rock: bands like The Rapture and Of Montreal, though there are always exceptions. (I saw the bearish country singer Jamey Johnson there once. “Betcha never thought you’d see my ass in Brooklyn,” he drawled onstage, sipping bourbon from a plastic cup.) And the layout of the place, with a balcony lounge and several different bars, facilitates fluid movement.
Speaking of which, we need only head a few blocks down Wythe Avenue—a barren strip of warehouses gradually turning into Condoville—to get to Zebulon, which has the permissive atmosphere and pressed-tin ceiling of a Parisian dive. It’s well after midnight by now, but the music is still going, as is the friendly hum of conversation. Who’s playing? A kora virtuoso from Mali, or an instrumental death-metal duo, or a fiery free-jazz combo. The not-knowing is part of the adventure, which after only two nights you’ve come to embrace. How long does it really take to become a New Yorker, anyway?
116 East 27th Street, (212) 576-2232
425 Lafayette Street, (212) 539-8778
The Living Room
154 Ludlow Street, (212) 533-7237
178 7th Avenue South, (212) 255-4037
Music Hall of Williamsburg
66 North 6th Street, Brooklyn,
258 Wythe Avenue, Brooklyn,