What struck me most this month was all the construction going on around outdoor dining. Now that outdoor dining will continue year-round, restaurants are scrambling to make their outdoor seating warmer and more sheltered. Heat lamps, now legal, are everywhere. Some of the structures still look makeshift, but others are quite sophisticated, such as the ones at Boucherie and Don Angie. And a number of amusing looking plastic bubbles have popped up on 7th Avenue. It remains to be seen whether this will be enough to entice people to eat outdoors when the colder weather arrives.
Pop-up/Closed/Open (all in one!)
Nice Day Chinese Takeout
190 Sullivan Street at Bleecker Street
In July, 2018, when Junzi Kitchen was just about to open their third location, I spoke to the owners about the restaurant, which had been conceived at the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute by a number of Yale students. Their first location, which opened in 2015, was in New Haven, and in 2017 they opened a second location near Columbia University. Junzi Kitchen is a Chinese fast-casual restaurant (think Chinese Chipotle), but Yong Zhao, one of the owners, was determined to serve authentic Northern Chinese food that was different from the Chinese food Americans were familiar with. Junzi did well and even opened a fourth location in the Bryant Park area, and a “ghost kitchen” called Zuul in Soho for delivery orders in lower Manhattan.
As the Junzi team looked to the future, they started thinking about local Chinese takeout restaurants that exist in every neighborhood, but which, in recent years, have been closing at an alarming rate. The reasons for this are myriad: people always thought of these restaurants as an inexpensive option, but with rising rents and labor costs (as well as taxes, etc.) it has been difficult to remain at a low price point. Also, many of these restaurants were family owned and run, but with fewer immigrants coming, the pool of family got smaller, and the next generation who were often college educated, did not want to take over the businesses. So when the owners reached a certain age and contemplated retirement, there was no one there to take over. Junzi’s idea was that they would purchase some of these restaurants, and continue serving the Chinese-American food that people were attached to. The Junzi team would make it work financially by creating a unified brand, and taking advantage of advances in technology, supply chain, automation and infrastructure. Junzi would benefit by taking over these spots since they already had a built-in customer base, plus they would save on the cost of opening a restaurant from scratch. Initially, Junzi thought it would keep the restaurant’s original names, but eventually the restaurants would all become part of a new brand which would enable a national advertising campaign and other economies of scale.
But with the pandemic, this project was put on hold, but in a different way it was accelerated: Junzi’s customers were mostly office workers and students, but since March there were fewer of both, so Junzi needed to market itself to families. And the Sullivan/Bleecker Street location was not doing as well as the other locations, so a decision was made to install a pop-up called Nice Day Chinese Takeout there.
Junzi’s chef is Lucas Sin, a talented 27-year old who was a Yale undergraduate when work started on Junzi. Lucas, who was originally from Hong Kong, had been cooking elaborate meals in his dorm room all through college. He had a fine dining pedigree as well, as he spent all his school vacations working in restaurants, some Michelin-starred, in the US and abroad. He has embraced the idea of a restaurant serving Chinese-American food, and has explained that it is just as valid a form of Chinese food as what is viewed as more authentic Chinese food. He loved the idea of serving all the takeout classics, like General Tso’s Chicken, Spring Rolls, Lo Mein, Fried Rice and more, but also wanted to optimize the recipes to make them taste even better. And after tasting some of them, I can say they are better. The Shake Shake Shrimp comes with the sauce on the side so that it stays crispy while in transit. I had it with the General Tso’s sauce (there are three options) which was less sweet and spicier than the usual incarnation. The beef used in the dishes is hangar steak, a less expensive cut, but very tender and flavorful when prepared correctly (and this one was). There are many more dishes like dumplings and Black Pepper Beef that I am excited to try (my favorite version of Black Pepper Beef was from Sung Chu Mei on Hudson Street which closed in 2008 but which I still miss.)
Nice Day has been doing well, with positive reviews and return customers, so a decision was made to convert from a pop-up to a permanent fixture. The ghost kitchen in Soho will reopen soon to deliver Junzi selections to lower Manhattan now that the Sullivan Street location has a different menu. And the company has been able to rehire about 16% of their employees, and are looking to add more, although some of them have since left the city.
Yong explained that Junzi and Nice Day are two answers to the same question: “What is the future of Chinese food in America?” While the accelerated disappearance of Chinese restaurants during the pandemic is causing people to mourn the loss of their favorite spots (in the Village the recent disappearance of Sammy’s Noodle Shop hit many hard), we are lucky to have Nice Day as a fresh new option.
The Lavaux Swiss Wine & Fondue Bar
630 Hudson Street between Jane and Horatio Streets
This attractive and unusual spot was planning an early 2020 opening, but the pandemic delayed things. Finally, though, they opened on October 16th for indoor and terrace dining. The owners are Swiss and also have a vineyard in the Lavaux region of Switzerland, and their goal is to introduce New Yorkers to Swiss wines and cheese. The menu consists of cheese boards and charcuterie boards (and combination boards), as well as fondues and a few open-faced sandwiches. Most Americans are not familiar with Swiss wines, as very little is exported to the US. Last summer, on a trip to Switzerland, I greatly enjoyed learning about such wines as Chasselas, the most widely planted native grape in Switzerland, as well as others, and I look forward to getting reacquainted.
I was sad to see that a sign on the door at Flip Sigi (525 Hudson Street between West 10th and Charles Streets) announced that it would be closing: “It is with a heavy heart that we have decided to make Wednesday, Nov 25th our last day at 525 Hudson St. Please come by and get your Flip Sigi while we are still here. With the proposed rent increases, our inability to adhere to the CDC guidelines in our tiny space and the looming cold winter months ahead, we simply don’t see a path forward.” When the restaurant re-opened for outdoor dining, they had a cheerful set-up complete with music. Flip Sigi opened in May 2016 and was originally called 2nd City. It was started by reality-TV chef Jordan Andino who had hoped to popularize Filipino cuisine by introducing Filipino food preparations into familiar dishes like tacos, burritos and grain bowls. A second location was open for a few years on the Upper East Side but it closed over a year ago. Mattress Firm (30 West 14th between 5th and 6th Avenues) has closed their West Village location. Previously the chain was called Sleepy’s. Across the street, LRoom Café (41 West 14th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues) has closed after a two-year run. This Asian spot described itself as a floral themed dessert and coffee shop, and featured elaborate cakes that looked exactly like other things, such as lemons, peaches and flowers.
Weed World (333 6th Avenue between West 3rd and West 4th Street) is coming to the space most recently occupied by Pure Seduction, an underwear store from Berlin. Contrary to its name, Weed World does not sell products containing THC, but instead sells hemp products and edibles containing CBD.
La Newyorkina (240 Sullivan Street near West 3rd Street) which is known for its excellent paletas (Mexican ice pops) and other Mexican sweets now also offers savory options for on-line ordering, such as tamales, empanadas and taquizas. Fany Gerson, the founder, grew up in Mexico and attended culinary school there and at the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, New York. She was also a partner in Dough, the donut chainlet, but after splitting with her partners, she recently opened Fan Fan Doughnuts in Bed-Stuy. While the donuts are not currently available at La Newyorkina, they may be in the future.
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