Tag Archives: Vita Cohorts

Vita Cohorts: New York’s Black Tree

| August 25, 2014

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You know the old adage that says it’s not the fight in the dog but the dog in the fight? Well, when it comes to the restaurant Black Tree in New York’s Lower East Side neighborhood, there might not be a better motto to describe this spot.

Not the largest space—featuring just a handful of tables and a narrow bar area—the food that chef and owner Sandy Dee Hall makes every day makes up for what the outside appearance may lack.

That’s not to say that the location doesn’t have charm and character. The interior makes you feel like you’re in a rustic old building, with exposed brick and solid wood accents.

But what makes Black Tree as unique and competitive in the popular New York City food scene is Sandy, who uses his self-taught love for food to whip up open face sandwiches that are some of the best I’ve ever tasted.

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Anytime a chef is as fixated on getting the freshest ingredients as Dee Hall is, like sticking to a 300-mile radius for all of his food components, it’s easy to see why the restaurant was featured on the popular Food Network show, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, with host Guy Fieri amazed at the way Dee Hall prepares and serves his dishes.

Cooking up his popular Pork Winter sandwich that uses Caffe Vita coffee as a dry rub, Fieri’s taste buds were blown away by the strong taste that came from the complex sandwich.

I had the chance to sit down with Sandy during a recent trip to New York, and he gave me the skinny on how the concept for Black Tree came to be, and where he developed a passion for using local and fresh ingredients for all of his dishes.

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How does coffee as a dry rub add to a dish?

“I think it just stands out a little bit more. When you first taste green coffee; it’s just a little tannic and sour. But, with meats especially, I think that coffee does a lot with our profile because it adds an acidity that’s missing when you don’t use something like a lemon. Just using the dry rub with the coffee, I think that’s really cool.”

Can you talk about the 300-mile radius you use to get your food?

“From New York City, we only go as far as 300 miles around, so I don’t have any citrus at the bar, or anything. All my liquor is beer or wine, and all the food comes from within that 300 miles. But, for instance, with Vita, I understand that the coffee beans themselves aren’t from around here, but they roast them right around the corner, (in Vita’s Lower East Side café).”

What drew you to Caffe Vita?

“I think you guys have an outstanding product. Since it’s such small batch stuff, I really like that it’s a nine-pound roast, and that’s it. The fact that you guys supply all of New York with your coffee by using just those nine-pound batches, I think that’s pretty exceptional and is a cool concept. I can really appreciate what you’re doing; it adds a special quality that you can tell makes a difference. It’s some of the little things that you’re doing that people come to appreciate.

How did you get to know about Caffe Vita?

“I’ve actually liked your guys’ brand for a long time. I opened up The Meatball Shop in Williamsburg, which is the first time I was introduced to Caffe Vita. And I always liked the coffee and the roast profile. It wasn’t particularly sour, which I like, since I prefer a dark, bold taste.”

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Where did the idea for Black Tree’s unique menu come from?

“I’m just basically insane, I guess? We wanted our menu to show things that people would normally get on a plate, but that we could do as a sandwich. When you get something as a sandwich, it can look messy, and doesn’t have to be exactly plated; which takes out a lot of labor since things don’t have to be peeled a certain way. All the meat doesn’t have to be formed in a certain way. And I thought that the only way to do that was by doing a sandwich. So lots of my original ideas were things that would normally be plated, but I can prepare as a sandwich. I can do a lot of these things on a plate, but it would cost me about twice as much because I would have to put so much effort into the entire process. But because it’s on a sandwich, the flavor stays the same, but it doesn’t matter how it looks because it’s not on a plate anymore.”

What separates Black Tree from some other restaurants in New York City?

“It’s the concept of a farm-to-table that’s accessible. It’s the price point being really low that continues to drive back regulars each week. I used to work at these really high-end restaurants, and when I started Black Tree, I knew that I couldn’t afford a $34 pork dish, even though it might be good and fresh. I could do the same thing at a lower price, though, because of the plating concept; which is really our main difference.”

How did you get the idea to use Vita coffee as a dry rub?

“I actually use your guys’ coffee in almost every piece of meat. The duck leg, it has coffee on it, but I just don’t advertise it on the menu like I do with the pork. Coffee, in a sense, can be difficult to use in certain things when cooking because of the texture, and because I’m using different braises and stuff, it almost dissipates into the liquid to make it a gritty texture. But it hits something in your mouth that just tastes good.”

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Where did you get the name Black Tree?

“It’s like an old concept that came from something I thought up a long time ago, which I knew would probably never happen. I just wanted this tree that would be growing in the center of the restaurant, and a floor that showed the root system underneath. So when I opened this place, people were wondering what I would name it, and I thought Black Tree, and my friends just thought it was cooler than Sandy’s Sandwiches or something.”

What made you decide on this location?

“I knew that I wanted to be on the Lower East Side. You get scared, because you don’t want to open up anything too big, but I feel like, even though we’re in a tiny area and get overwhelmed at times, the vibe’s good and we’re staying busy, so that’s always good.”

How do you deal with so much food competition in New York?

“You know, I’m really self-conscious with my cooking because I wasn’t classically trained. There are lots of people who went to culinary school and then traveled around to some of the better restaurants in the world, but just seeing people’s reaction to our food, it kind of changes my mind on things, and proves that our dishes are at the same level as some of the higher end places in the city. We might get a bad wrap because people think we’re just sandwiches or whatever, but if they want great food at a great price point, I always tell people to come here over spending $80 somewhere else.”

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Vita Cohorts: Los Angeles’ Eveleigh

| August 21, 2014

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When learning that we would be visiting the restaurant Eveleigh on Los Angeles’ Sunset strip, my first instinct was to think of the word “trendy.”

Maybe it was just the first-timer in me that engrained the perception into my mind, but Sunset Boulevard is a staple of the city’s nightlife, and I figured Eveleigh would match that personality.

Walking up to the restaurant, it was clear that this wasn’t your average, run-of-the-mill chic spot, instead relying on family-like relationships and personal communication that appeals to its guests.

With both a shaded front porch and a massive back deck, Eveleigh has a stunning, open atmosphere.

Rustic metal accents, solid wood tables, creative art and a fully stocked bar fill the entire restaurant, making it as beautiful as the smell of the food cooking in the kitchen.

The staff is as friendly as can be, putting aside any notion of entitlement, a common theme among other L.A. restaurants, with a number of different employees introducing themselves and offering suggestions based on our likes and dislikes.

As we introduced ourselves to General Manger Jeremy Adler, it became clear where the backbone of the entire operation comes from, as Jeremy talked about how Eveleigh gets its fresh ingredients, changes its menu daily—which, alone, makes it unique—and what the future holds for the restaurant that is just shy of its fourth anniversary.

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First things first, how did you make the decision to go with Caffe Vita in your restaurants?

“I think we just tasted a bunch of different kinds of coffee, and we really just liked the flavor profile.”

Are you currently, or plan to use, Vita coffee in any dishes or drinks?

“We haven’t, but we’re not opposed to the idea. I feel like, coffee in dessert makes sense, sometimes coffee in meats makes sense, but it’s a little gimmicky at times, and we try to stay away from that and use our natural ingredients; that’s our approach.”

Prior to Eveleigh, you were in New York City at En Japanese Brasserie, what made you head out west?

“A headhunter actually found me. I know, very undramatic. A friend of mine’s a chef, and he worked with this particular headhunter and they contacted me. I was very reticent in moving from New York to L.A. because it’s a very different vibe in terms of restaurants and culture. In addition to that, preconceived notions of this area are divergent from who and what we are. Still, I met the guys in New York, we got along really well and I’ve been here for almost three years.”

You mentioned the location; do you guys get a lot of celebrities in the restaurant?

“You know, every restaurant in L.A. gets a lot of celebrities. Like Seattle is the nexus of coffee, Los Angeles is the nexus of entertainment, and with so many people living here and going out, that’s just part of it. You know what I get excited about? Regular guests.

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I was just going to ask you that. Do you have the regulars that come in all the time?

“Absolutely. That’s the foundation of any restaurant. We are trying to show such a good time, that people have no choice but to come back. We want to manufacture and cultivate regulars. We want to create an environment where people feel comfortable and enjoy themselves and they can have a relationship with the people who work here. The food, drinks and coffee that we serve create a sense of community.”

Building a community. How important is that, and does it come more from word of mouth or marketing?

“I really don’t believe in marketing. We do PR. We do social media. Word of mouth is so important. There’s a farmer’s market across the street, on Thursday’s, and we’re going to try and sell some of our bread and butter that we make in house—not because we need the money, but because it’s a nice way to remind people that we’re baking bread everyday and you can have fresh bread at three o’clock that was baked just a couple hours ago, which a lot of restaurants around here aren’t doing. We make our own butter from heavy cream each day, too.”

Can you talk about the farmer’s market a little bit, and how you work with them?

“For a long time, we were the only restaurant that was buying vegetables from them, so most of the farmers stopped coming. One of the farmers that we work with, Sabrina from Shear Rock Farms, has a seven-acre farm in Santa Rosa, and we buy about half of what she grows. That’s a pride inducing statement, and I’m really stoked about that. I’m really happy about that and is one thing that I’ll show-off about.”

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Do you have any stipulations on how far you will, or won’t, go for your ingredients?

“It’s really not too discrete. Food is not a black or white situation, there’s always a shade of gray and there’s some give and take. Our chef really likes to use grass-fed beef, which begs the question if it’s better to use corn-fed beef from California or do you go elsewhere because there’s a drought going on here, so obviously grass-fed beef is very limited, it has become expensive, and the quality isn’t all that good because there’s not that much grass. So, do you eat the beef from California with limited distance from your restaurant, or do you pursue other locations a little bit further away, but are more specific to what resembles your philosophy on food and how to raise cattle? We’ve chosen to go with the latter, so we do get some beef from a little bit further away, which we think is more delicious. If there’s product that’s 199 miles away and it’s good, but there’s something that’s 201 miles away and it’s f–ing delicious, we’ll go the extra couple miles to break any restriction.”

Can you talk about where chef Jared Levy gets the inspiration for his different menus?

“I think products speak to him, he doesn’t speak to the products. Jared goes to the farmer’s market and gets inspired and goes to the garden in our restaurant to get inspired, and we work with a couple different farmers who come and bring ingredients here, and he’s really been into edible weeds lately because it’s fun to use on dishes.”

OK, I’m sitting down for the first time at Eveleigh, what’s the recommended dish I order?

“Well because the menu changes everyday, it’s a difficult question to answer. The dish that’s on the menu that probably won’t go away is the lamb meatballs. We sell a lot of them. It’s house ground lamb, we make a breadcrumb salsa with some capers and lamb chopper Gouda cheese on top, so it’s a classic dish. On another level, last Thursday, we got a whole, baby lamb. They butchered it Friday morning and on Friday night we had nine different cuts that were sold in different ways. The roasted leg, the braised neck or shoulder, all the different chops, the ribs. You know, there were nine different cuts that you could buy from one animal on Friday. That animal was delivered on Thursday and by Friday night we were out of the whole animal, and we had guests who were clamoring to sit down (that night) because they knew we were going to run out of lamb. There aren’t a lot of restaurants in L.A. that do that and because we change the menu each day, you have to have the volume of people to come in each day to eat all that product, and then it’s also not an inexpensive dish, so people have to feel like it’s worth it. It’s awesome, man. I think doing something like that is just so special.”

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I’m a vegetarian, so can you talk about what you offer for those who don’t eat meat?

“I’d say about 30 percent of our menu is vegetarian. The menu is broken into three columns, garden, sea and land, and the garden stuff has meat in it, but we can normally remove those items. It seems that everyone in L.A. is vegan, or gluten free, they all have something, and we’re not going to change L.A., so we’re adapting, being flexible and dynamic. We’re true to the creativity of the chef, but we’ll never sell something if we don’t believe in it and it’s not delicious.”

If there’s one thing that you’re most proud of about Eveleigh, what would it be?

“If you looked at Sunset Boulevard four years ago, you would see the Sysco truck pull up to all of these other restaurants and have individual packets of chicken would come out of the truck in their box, and eventually go onto the grill and into the deep-fryer. Those restaurants are busy, full and successful. That’s great. There’s a lot of complexity involved in running a restaurant on a philosophical way that you think is correct. And while it’s a challenge and can be a pain in the ass, at times, I wouldn’t be working here if we used those individually wrapped packs of chicken breast. I think we’re most proud of being a leader in helping those other restaurants mimic some of our philosophies, because it’s a testament to our process. Another thing are the relationships that I’ve built with guests and other people in the industry because of what we do here.”

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Can you talk about the culture at Eveleigh a little bit?

“We’re trying to change the preconceived notions that people have of this place. When people think of Sunset Boulevard, they think of plastic, Ferrari’s, neon lights, that the food doesn’t matter. We try to have the valet’s park all the Prius’ and Honda’s out front, instead of all the Corvette’s, Ferrari’s and Lamborghini’s. We’re not flashy. We just try to create a sense of hospitality and warmth.”

What does the future hold for the restaurant?

“(Laughing) I think that this place always feels like it’s just on the wheels and ready to tilt away, you know what I mean? Just printing a new menu every day is, in and of itself, a long process. You’re always worried that people won’t come back tomorrow, or that they don’t like you, or understand what you’re doing. That’s plenty to think about, so we’ll worry about today, and think about tomorrow when it comes. Good things will happen if you continue to take care of people.”

 

Vita Cohorts: New York’s Baby’s All Right

| June 13, 2014

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Throw out everything you know about diners and music venues, because when you walk into Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right, you’ll have a change of opinion on what can be achieved with talent, good friends, a lot of hard work and some creativity.

Located on Broadway in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, the diner-like setting might not appear to be more than just some refurbished wood, cool art and a few tables scattered around, but after attending—yes, that’s what it should be called when visiting the place—it will instantly pull you in with all that is happening in the 5,000-square foot space.

As one of the restaurants that serves our brew in the steadily evolving New York City coffee scene, see why Baby’s All Right isn’t food, isn’t music and isn’t a bar; but a place that offers an experience that will undoubtedly become a routine of yours each week—for any one of the reasons we just listed.

Sitting down with Executive Chef Ronald Murray, here’s why your next trip to the Big Apple should include this hip haven.

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How did you get the idea to do all this, because I know it’s pretty unique what you’re doing here?

“The original concept was born out of a love for music and a love for the neighborhood we’re in. We saw that we could do something entirely unique, but also very special for the people who live not only in New York City, but the Williamsburg area in Brooklyn.

There were three of us that got together to develop a more solid concept in which music, arts and food were all combined into a beautiful collage of the youths.

It was cool, because we—along with Zach Mexico and Billy Jones—could have opened a music venue—that would have been one thing. We could have opened a bar—that would have been another thing. We could have just opened a restaurant. But we saw a very challenging opportunity, but also something special, because we tried to hit on something that had never been done successfully here on such a large scale.”

So this really came from a couple of buddies who wanted to turn it from a hobby into a real business?

“It was more based off of Zach, who is the Founder and head concept creator, who took someone like Billy Jones, who has been a friend and partner in booking music in the city for years, to someone like me, who has specialized in restaurants in New York for the past decade, and finding something that would be functional and very, very fun.

We’ve been really going for it this past year, not only just trying to get things off the ground, but really to build an identity and a lifestyle.”

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How did you guys decide on Vita coffee?

“You guys came in because of your spot on the Lower East Side, and that spot being Billy’s favorite coffee shop.

Knowing you roast it in-house and that you’re not going to get a better brew, we thought you would be perfect for what we wanted here because you were smaller, very personal and the coffee is just really, really good.

It was the personalization that we really believe in and are big on here, because you’re not part of a big company, and you just fit in with our whole philosophy.

And in regards to how it’s doing, people love the coffee.”

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How has the reception around the area been to Baby’s All Right?

“It’s going really, really well. It was a full build-out of two spaces, so the process was a little crazy.

For example, before we had gas or anything to cook with, we were just working on renovations during the day, and then used it as a music venue, basically just throwing parties as different bands came in. Hell, we didn’t even have hot water, so we were serving in like plastic cups.

After an entire season of just holiday parties, we launched the kitchen and the music and the bar seven days a week. Soon thereafter, we started doing brunch.

There are a lot of amazing restaurants around here, but most of them you have to wait for to have brunch, and we just thought we could create something here that can be lasting. Amazing food first, and then people can go see a show after.”

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How often do you have bands playing per week?

“We have about three live acts a night, sometimes more, and then we also have DJs. Sound check usually goes on about 7pm for the headliner, and then doors open around 8pm to 8:30pm, do a few live sets, and then have the front DJ play over the whole space.

But because of how it’s broken up, it’s very modular, so it’s two separate spaces. You could sit in here for two hours and have dinner, and never know that there’s some rocker in the live room just singing his heart out.”

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Lastly, I have to ask, how did you guys come up with the name?

“When first renovating the place, Zack had bought a sign at an antique auction that just said, ‘All Right,’ so then it just had to be ‘Something All Right.’

So with me being Ronnie, I suggested just going with, ‘Ronnie’s All Right,’—which got shut down really quick.

It was always a really funny talking point, because it just turned into a joke. Like after meeting you, I’d be like, ‘let’s name it Nick’s All Right.’

And then we booked 15 different acts for an entire week and were throwing a crazy party in here—but still didn’t have a name.

So we were hanging out talking, and after a lot of ideas were thrown around, I was talking about an ex-girlfriend of mine who is into some crazy shit these days. Everyone reacted all surprised and I said, ‘No, guys, don’t worry, my baby’s all right,’ and it just kind of stuck.

With us being a music venue, we thought about rock n’ roll, and how everybody is always singing about their baby, and if their baby’s all right.

One dirty story, and I’m trying to defend my girl. No one really knows that, but that’s how it happened.”