New York is changing. It’s getting smaller, friendlier, less corporate, less
ostentatious and maybe even a little bit more geniune. The stock-market bubble
has burst, the economy is turning rough, and people are less interested in what
you do, more interested in who you are. That’s my take, anyway. Others are less
upbeat, with the New York Post declaring
that my neighbourhood has been "jolted" by a crime wave of late.
I, however, feel just as safe here as I always have, and certainly the boutiques,
restaurants, bars and other signs of gentrification continue to open up apace.
One of the more recent such additions to the East Village scene is Sen,
a new restaurant on Avenue C which Michael Blowhard calls
"nouvelle-Asian". I don’t really know what that means; as far as I’m
concerned it’s Vietnamese, but mercifully free of the formica tables and fluorescent
lighting that most Vietnamese restaurants suffer from. There’s not even any
On the other hand, seeing as how the people behind this place also had a hand
in the likes of Sushi Samba and BondSt, Sen is blessedly attitude-free. You
can come in here not wearing black and feel perfectly comfortable; the waitstaff
is friendly and not oppressively beautiful; you don’t need to navigate your
way around doormen or Blahnik-clad maitre d’s. Now, if only they’d put their
name somewhere on the restaurant, it would be perfect. Like Smith
(RIP), the only time you ever see the name of the restaurant is on the credit-card
Actually, Smith’s demise is another indication of the new New York. Its replacement,
a little bit fashionista but has lost a lot of Smith’s attitude. The food is
meatloaf, not rabbit ravioli; the waiters wear t-shirts, not designer duds.
Local tagger Pork has done a mural on the front wall. Most importantly, the
diners are having a good time on a relatively tight budget, rather than attempting
to be seen on an enormous one.
Sen’s the same. I ordered a whole curried fish for $19 which was pretty much
the most expensive thing on the menu. That would get you a couple of bites of
(exquisite) sushi at BondSt. The fish (red snapper, the day I went) was perfect:
crunchy on the outside, deliciously tender on the inside, and covered in the
kind of spices which make you wake up and tingle.
Sen has a certain amount of fusion food on its menu too: I’m particularly fond
of the frogs’ legs and the quail, both of which are available either as starters
or mains. On the more traditional side, there’s ironpot chicken or some great
curries. And the restaurant certainly has fun on the sake front: three different
infusions, including lemongrass and passionfruit, as well as an extensive menu
of excellent cold sakes. (Beware: these can be very expensive indeed if you
have a few of them: I can highly recommend the Masami, but it’s $11 for a pretty
The one thing I’d avoid is the desserts, even if a pastry chef from Jean Georges
did consult on them. As in nearly all Asian restaurants, they simply don’t work:
avocado ice-cream is not a good idea.
But if you live in the East Village, you don’t go to restaurants for your ice-cream:
you go to Il Laboratorio del
Gelato on Orchard Street. You knew that, right? It’s one of the few success
stories south of Delancey Street: the big six-lane road coming off the Williamsburg
Bridge is a formidable barrier to have to cross, but we’ll do it for ice cream
Is Il Laboratorio the new New York? Very much so. The owner, Jon Snyder, founded
Ciao Bella and then sold it before
it became the huge business it is now; his latest project is much smaller, and
even more artisanal.
There’s lots of this sort of thing going on: the road on which I live, Rivington
Street, is filling up with small art galleries showing interesting work without
Chelsea attitude. (That said, it’s also home to a monstrous new
hotel, which is definitely, and defiantly, Old New York. For what it’s worth,
my sources say the same as Lockhart Steele’s: that it’s not going to be a W,
it’s going to be a Standard. Either way, it’s going to be extremely yuppie.)
Even websites are getting smaller and cooler. The latest must-visit New York
weblog is Gawker, a veritable cornucopia
of guilty pleasures which was started on a shoestring budget by Nick
Denton and Elizabeth Spiers,
both formidable bloggers in their own rights. Lockhart Steele makes frequent
appearances, as does Aaron Bailey. But Gawker’s
more than just another blog: it’s actually an attempt to make money. It has
a cool and pared-down listings section every day (just one or two things really
worth knowing about) and tries to keep up with media gossip. (Today, for instance,
it managed to link to Radar magazine’s website
long before Romenesko
did.)* It also has some original reporting of its own, such as the truly great
interview with a drug-addled
Wall Streeter entitled "The Quest for the Perfect Coke Dealer".
Gawker is the new New York, then, in the way that dead old websites like New
York Sidewalk and New York Today were the old New York. Or look at alt-publishing:
Russ Smith, the founder and proprietor of the New
York Press, sold out to a couple of gay-press publishers who fired two editors
in as many weeks and brought in someone who was last seen editing an expat rag
in Prague. I doubt we’ll be reading much about Smith’s Concorde flights any
I hope the new New York lasts, that my adoptive hometown can become somewhere
amenable to non-millionaires again. The city is going through a very nasty budget
crisis, and I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of negative equity in this town
when the housing bubble bursts, but every cloud has a silver lining. Look at
Buenos Aires: I’m told that in the wake of the economic crisis there, the city’s
cultural life has only got more vibrant. People who used to be obsessed by making
money are now unemployed and making art instead.
Here’s to the Small Apple!
*Actually, I’m wrong about this. Romenesko had a link to Radar on Thursday, almost a full 24 hours before Gawker. Sorry, Jim!
About the LES… I love my neighborhood, I’ve been here for almost 7 years and am a proud LESer. I’ve seen the neighborhood change from one grotty cafe on Clinton Street (Lotus, with lousy coffee but good H&H bagles) to wine bars, tapas restaurants, bakeries and fairly high-end cuisine. I worry that the hood is gentrifying too much, but my real concern is traffic! One of my main reasons for leaving LA was to get the hell out of traffic jams. Several times I needed to call a car service to get me to work this month – and as I jump in the car, I instantly sit in traffic, on my street! Rivington! When the streets on Clinton and Suffolk changed back to their original direction, it created huge amounts of traffic going north on Clinton. That’s acceptable, as we are right off the Williamsburg Bridge. But the various construction on Rivington (luxury lofts that are ugly and our new fabulous hotel) – it now takes me 15 minutes to get to Houston! What’s it going to be like when the hotel opens? Will I be able to get my bike down the street?
Huh? If this is my new New York – you can have it back.
And also, a second note on Starfoods – well, yeah, it’s a fun place to chat with friends and play games like “Connect Four” after dinner – but the food itself is nothing special. First they got Stefan and my order wrong, and then my roasted chicken turned out to be a cornmeal covered chicken. It wasn’t all that delicious. The service is casual and the people are really friendly, but the food is a little over-priced for what it is… and perhaps the uber-cute looking boys waiting the tables were more interested in all the foxy ladies than getting orders correct!
i think Felix means “Blahnik-shod”…
Sounds good enough for me to think about a visit. When should I come?