Pop Stuff: The Last Supper
When we cross the crisis, restaurants will come back with gusto, greeting us with gastronomic hugs, feeding us meals to write home about
It was the kind of Winter’s day in the city where a lightness in the breeze foreshadowed Spring. The air was crisp and clean as a starched shirt and the sky on the West Side, where the sun had just set, turned from indigo to inky black. Reaching for the vestibule door, I glanced at the bare cherry trees that lined Columbus Avenue and imagined I could see tiny buds silhouetted on the branches. Inside, shielded from the cold, I stuffed my gloves in a pocket and took off my beanie, a chunky number with thick-looped, orange and navy zig-zags stitched over cream wool, an ironic hipster look, that I decided to spare the hostess. Shaking out my hair, I clasped the familiar curve of Gari’s large, wooden door handle and grinned at the one gentleman and two women standing patiently behind the tiny stand, just large enough for a single screen displaying reservations, blinking like Pac-men, for the tightly packed restaurant that hummed around them. ‘7.30pm for two at the bar. Under Soleil,’ I said leaning in close to be heard over the group that had formed behind me, ‘My friend should be here any minute’, I white lied.
The gentleman manager ignored me even though we had seen each other countless times before. Hopeless of me to announce my arrival before the complete party was here, he was thinking. The older woman, a petite, immaculately dressed, Japanese lady with a high bun, nodded at me knowingly with a mix of grace and admonition that was appropriate for tiny school children and late dinner guests. The younger hostess assigned to deal with me, smiled a brief, warm smile and offered to take my coat before gesturing to a single chair outside the entrance to the restroom. Grateful, I sat beneath hooks dripping with outerwear and checked my phone exchanging a few quick messages with Chiara. A few minutes away – They should have two spots at the bar for us – I’m almost pulling up – Hurry because it looks like a wait if they give them away – Ok xx – See you soon, kissy-face emoji. I put my phone away and looked across the sushi bar, over the two rows of diners on squat wooden chairs at sturdy, oak tables and out past the tall sheet glass windows of the restaurant. It was a Friday night in Manhattan, late in February. The last normal Friday.
Through the glass, instead of seeing the familiar storefronts and boxed windows of a tall high rise or flood-lit cornices of the kind of pre-war buildings that underpin New York’s Upper West Side, even as it marches into a future of sleek lines, I saw an expanse of green blanketed in darkness, tall trees reaching up like dancing figurines. Gari, my favourite sushi spot in the city, sits on Columbus Avenue between West 77th and West 78th streets, facing the park that surrounds the American Museum of Natural History. In a time that seems like eons ago, a time when plane travel wasn’t fraught with Covid-19 restrictions and travel bans, I would bring my nephew, who lives in Mumbai, to the museum during his Summer holidays. We would walk up the grand steps of the front entrance, one avenue over on Central Park West, and he would marvel at the enormous dinosaur skeletons before we moved on to the main event – the space show in the Hayden Planetarium.
The museum lays closed and quiet now, quiet that is aside from its involvement in the heated national debate over statues. The next time I visit, the bronze statue of Theodore Roosevelt on horseback that presides over the entrance, flanked by a Native American man on his right and an African American man on his left, will be gone. In the wake of America’s furor over racism in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd, one more in a steady stream of unarmed Black men murdered by authority figures, the museum made the overdue decision that the hierarchical composition of the statue was entirely inappropriate for a loved and revered institution, let alone one that represents the pioneering spirit of discovery. The next time I can visit a public institution, thronging with people all shoulder to shoulder, we will be in a new world in more ways than one.
It seems fitting that Gari shares an avenue block with the Museum of Natural History. For many, myself included, it is another beloved New York institution, not quite a museum, but a little giant in the world of restaurants. Gari’s founder, Masatoshi ‘Gari’ Sugio, is himself no stranger to a pioneering spirit. He arrived in New York in 1978 as a Japanese immigrant, having spent several years in Tokyo, where at the age of nineteen he first became a Sushi Chef. After working for a number of restaurants in the city, Sugio grew frustrated seeing customers repeatedly dunk their sushi in soy sauce. It rankled him to see a sublime piece of raw fish reduced to the stature of a donut. He decided to perfect exquisite sauces that could be incorporated into the sushi to compliment the fish without overpowering it. When Sugio took the plunge and opened his flagship restaurant, Sushi of Gari, on the Upper East Side in 1997, he became a leader in the movement towards avant-garde sushi in a city that would soon be bursting with it.
A few years later, when I was barely justifying my business card at my first job in New York, a chef friend insisted on dragging me Uptown for a midnight meal at Sushi of Gari, which like any respectable chef hangout, was open into the wee hours. The restaurant was small, white-walled and unartfully minimalist. I barely noticed the too-bright lights, the smattering of orchids or the diners greeting Sugio with reverence, because the sushi was the best I had ever tasted. It was a meal I savoured, knowing I would not be able to afford it on my own dime till many years later. By the time I could justify the splurge, Sugio had opened what would be the second of four restaurants in the city, Gari, on the Upper West Side. In 2006, I took a speedy 1 train Uptown from my Greenwich Village brownstone, sat down at a table with friends, all of us charlatans amidst the literati that frequented the place, and fell in love at first bite. Fourteen years later, waiting for Chiara, Gari felt like a comfortable marriage. Today, unsure of when restaurants will bustle again, or if many will even survive, the separation has provoked longing.
As I turned away from Gari’s windows towards the door, Chiara walked in, her face flushed with cold. The high-bun hostess nodded her towards me without a beat and we hugged with the genuine abandon of two people who have never known a face mask as she squeezed herself onto half of the single chair that had been allotted to me. I craned my neck up to make eye contact with the warm-smile hostess, a sign to let her know we were here and craned it again to the left, towards the sushi bar, to indicate our readiness to take the seats where she had just dropped the check. She met my eyes with hers – just a few minutes they said.
This was the thing about Gari, in true Japanese style, everything except the essentials of menu ordering and dinner chat, happened within an implicit silence. For a place that was always in demand, it dispensed with the downtown cool-kid attitude that moves the people who air kiss the host up the reservations list. It chose democracy over the fine dining ethos of making sure regulars with tall wallets always got a table. It was the rare, thrumming city restaurant where it was actually easy to get a reservation a few days ahead but absolutely impossible the day of, a sign of demand that spoke to longevity not trendiness. In spite of Sugio’s Michelin-starred fame, Gari with its style-defying, boxy seating, comfortably worn in sage and mauve carpet and metronomic energy of tables turning over without rushing either the food or the conversation, was a place you went out to eat; not to be seen or cloyingly waited on or marvel at the décor. Gari, with its tables, tightly packed into an L around the bar, where people sat at an elbow’s distance, was the kind of close-quarters dining experience that really didn’t see a pandemic coming.
Motioned over to our seats, Chiara and I threaded ourselves between tables and slipped into high stools at the center of the warm, mahogany bar, flanked by a middle-aged couple on one side and a flowy blonde in intense conversation with a high ponytailed brunette on the other. The four Sushi Chefs whirred at their stations behind the counter, smiling at us with the tops of their heads, their hands dancing over slippery, silver eel, gooey, orange roe and pieces of salmon, fluke and tuna in sunset shades of pink. Our server turned the menus sideways so she could edge them into the gap between us, following them with two glasses of tap water. The menus, like Gari, were a mix of elegance and practicality; soy sauce proof, plastic-covered sheets, bound in burgundy leather. We pored over them with the concentrated silence of two famished people who knew each other well enough to get the ordering out of the way.
As I was scanning the pages for something new to dazzle my taste buds, the ponytailed brunette leaned over to Chiara to ask if she was by any chance the interior designer that had worked on her friend’s project in Los Angeles. Chiara, an interior designer, the very same, began discussing wall paper with the ponytail who thought nothing of interrupting our race to order and eagerly began to list all the people they might know in common with asides about her taste for celadon walls and textured fabrics. Ignored and momentarily bored, I turned to my left where the couple beside me, plied with sake, were trying to decide if they should have desert. Seeing me at a loose end, they enlisted me. I contemplated telling them that the mochi ice-cream was the only thing that wasn’t made on site but it felt treasonous. Instead, I began to debate the merits of conventional green tea mochi versus the surprising delicious strawberry flavour that had taken me back to a Tokyo childhood, I’d never had.
In the rear view mirror, I see three assorted couples talking, like twisted, tinned sardines, barely a foot away from the chefs handling their dinner. On this side of the pandemic that scene has the déjà vu quality of another life. Now that the city has successfully flattened the Covid curve, after once being its throbbing epicenter, take-out is widely available. I can cross Central Park to Gari on a Summer evening and pick up a box of neat rolls, packed by gloved hands. It is a stroll I haven’t taken, if only to stave off the acceptance that the messy togetherness and spontaneous conversation of long-ago evenings are lost to us till we reach the safe shores of vaccine land, herd immunity or a minor miracle. And even then Gari, and many beloved eateries like it, may not make it through.
New York City has topped the list of cities with the highest number of businesses that have closed during Covid. More than a third of these businesses have been restaurants, the worst of the pandemic’s casualties, seeing more permanent closings in the U.S. than retail stores. Restaurants, the pulsing heart of every city block, numbering over ten thousand in Manhattan alone, were already waging war against exorbitant city rents, diners who were constantly searching for the next instagrammable meal and the competitive heat of celebrity chef-dom. New York consistently saw entrepreneurial chefs eagerly shell out small fortunes only to tango to entice diners with every weapon in an arsenal; happy-hour cocktails to farm-fresh ingredients, Eater reviews to Michelin stars, century-old recipes to experimental gastronomy. Over a thousand restaurants optimistically opened in the city each year, betting they would not be part of the eighty percent that would close within the next five. It was a marvel that Gari had celebrated its fifteenth birthday in January, an eternity in restaurant years.
Fifteen minutes and a gentle eye roll later, Chiara’s new acquaintance was edging out of her seat. Her friend, now also tired of being flouted for mid-century modern furniture and down to her last drop of sake, was ready to go. The ponytail managed to keep talking as she left and we writhed in our seats, performing a sort of Ardha Matsyendrasana, fittingly a yogic ‘Half Fish’ pose, to say goodbye. A couple on a second date, thrilled that their thighs would brush the entire meal, filled the vacant bar seats seconds after the countertop had been briskly wiped clean. We returned to scouring the menu.
This was an exercise in futility, the sushi equivalent of window shopping, since we usually ordered the same thing, shared appetizers followed by two sushi ‘deluxes’ which paired an assortment of sushi with a fatty-tuna roll. That night, Chiara, who had just come from a session with an enthusiastic body work artiste, Manhattan for massage, and by the sounds of it, my idea of torture, was so opened up that her third eye must have anticipated Covid and she decided to order off the Gari Signature menu. Loathe to watch her eat truffle-coated halibut alone, I quickly followed. ‘Everything she just ordered, plus one Yaki Kaki. Will you share a few other things? Ok, then we’ll start with a Hijiki salad and try the Yaki Toro and the Tai Salad too’. We weren’t drinking and had decided to compensate with gluttony. I handed the menus back to our server who in another notch for Gari, didn’t flinch.
The Gari Signature menu is what vaulted Sugio to fame and spawned a new generation of Sushi Chefs who concerned themselves with complexity over simplicity. The menu, a rotating compilation of exquisite sushi dressed to form a mini explosion of flavor, is the kind of sensory experience that, impossible to replicate at home, I’m now grateful has been enshrined in my memory. As if to make a point about how these creations hit the taste buds with absolute precision, asking for extra sauce at the Gari bar, is severely frowned upon. After a course of seaweed salad, lightly flavored with sesame and oysters baked to crumbly, salt-watery perfection, our sushi arrived. The miniature, diagonally placed sculptures looked almost too ethereal to eat as they sat poised on their sturdy t-shaped wooden blocks. Blue fin tuna rested in a red slab over its compact bed of rice, coated in tofu purée and drizzled with homemade chili oil for alternating stripes of red and white. A thin sliver of fried lotus root teetered over minute, leafy greens with pine nuts on Japanese snapper for a marriage of textures. Sake-seared salmon sat under a mohawk of broiled tomato.
That evening, Chiara was fresh off installing a much talked-about co-working space and I was in the midst of nearby Lincoln Center’s annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema festival, a celebration of the newest talent in French cinema. As we ate yellowtail punctuated with jalapeno we filled each other in on banal specifics of packed cinema halls and shared communal work tables that taunt us now with unattainability. They have become exclusive events held only in countries with flat Covid-19 curves. She told me how her daughter was enjoying first grade, neither of us suspecting, as we inhaled tuna sprinkled with ponzu-infused radish shavings, that the school year would end and begin anew with students boxed in on screens, if they were lucky enough to have them. We discussed travel plans with pre-pandemic boldness. She would fly to Florida for her daughter’s Spring break, followed later in the year by a trip to her family home in Italy. I would visit mine in India. I thought of Mumbai absently as I devoured crunchy eel chopped with rice cracker, floating on a buttery slice of avocado. It was impossible, then, to be homesick for something a mere flight away.
The talk of seeing our families made us reverentially nostalgic in the way adult children become about their parents when they begin to show the vaguest signs of aging. We turned to the kind of conversation that feels out of reach at a six-foot distance, telling stories that had been handed to us in intimate moments of how our grandparents and then parents had met. We emulated their youthful exuberance in our recanting and sharing. Nonna and Nonno, Ba and Bapuji, Mom and Papa. Who knew the dead would seem closer and the living further away in a matter of weeks? Coming back to the present, I shared what I was writing and over the last pieces of embellished fish, we peered at my phone together, touching surfaces without a second thought. Our server interrupted us to clear away our sushi boards. Ignorant, that this would be the Last Gari Supper, we nonchalantly skipped desert and asked for the check, happy to hand over our coveted seats. As I rose and turned away from the bar and to the room, I saw it brimming with conversation; groups in heated dialogue, dates discovering one another, parents relieved by a babysitter, friends, like us, in uninhibited chatter, unaware that we would soon have to find new places to hold our stories.
Today, dinner table chat has too often been replaced with the anxious pulse of newscasters and the silence of those we have lost. It is six months since New York turned from a teeming city into a ghost town, abandoned by those with the means to flee, its streets untrampled by the rest. As the city goes through a long-awaited, phased reopening, New Yorkers are flooding restaurants with outdoor seating that spills from pavements into roads, which city officials have closed to cars in a bid to keep restaurants alive. It remains to be seen if the patrons at well-spaced tables, relieved to finally be out and the masked servers, hoping to make rent for one more month, are fleeting images or if we are settling into a new rhythm that will buoy eateries and the city with them. Survival, in an industry that was never for the faint at heart, is tougher still when restauranteurs must contend with the whims of a virus and put their staff’s lives at risk even as diners weigh the perils of eating food prepared by others. The very sign of a booming restaurant; a crowd waiting to squeeze in to a tiny table, is not only a danger signal but a fineable offense. And then there is the issue what happens when the relative safety of open-air eating meets the next cold Friday in Manhattan, late in February.
I hope Gari and other cherished haunts, be it the dive bar on the corner, the local pizzeria or the upscale joint where memories were made – all the places that give a neighborhood its flavour in more ways than one, will make it to the other side. Yet, I see the ‘For Lease’ signs dotting storefronts and read that eighty percent of restaurants could not meet their rent last month and fear I’m being optimistic. Countless venues have already shut their doors and amongst them some of New York’s most beloved institutions. Keith McNally’s Lucky Strike in Soho, which opened over three decades ago, well before his now iconic Balthazaar and Pastis, was amongst the first to go. Gem Spa an East Village fixture for nearly a century, known for its egg creams and its punk roots was a victim of gentrification and rising rents before the pandemic put the nail in its coffin. Highly regarded restaurants like The Gotham Bar and Grill and David Chang’s Nishi could be saved neither by their enduring hype nor their celebrated chefs. Bars like the famed Pegu Club have seen a similar fate in this minor apocalypse for the food and beverage industry. For those with the legs to weather on, they will be plodding into a future where dining out is no longer ‘New York normal’ as the city suffers its worst downturn in decades and people lose their jobs, reconfigure their lives and in many cases forgo their bite of the Big Apple.
If you are not harking back to the last mask-free meal you ate in your own beloved spot, you might instead be thinking that this is just a bougie ode to over-priced fish, the deluded ramblings of someone out of touch with pressing issues like school openings, universal healthcare, increasing poverty, death. It is not lost on me that restaurant closures are far from our weightiest loss but we must give ourselves room to bemoan the smaller things as we process the larger ones.
After all, this is not so much an ode to gourmet cuisine as it is an ode to the comforting atmosphere of intimate spaces and to those who created them. It is an ode to innovative cuisines and the immigrant chefs who dream them up as they cross borders and bridge past and future to bring us ancient cuisines in modern ways in a true melting pot of a city. A remembrance of sharing plates and conversation, telling secrets and stories with the abandon that only comes outside of the hum drum of daily living. I miss the matchless feel of a packed bar where Sushi Chefs busy themselves with the synchronicity of an orchestra and strangers interrupt my meal, the uninhibited conversations that happen only at six inches apart and deliciousness layered on a bed of rice in a creation beyond my best culinary efforts. The warm embrace of restaurants like Gari is lost for now but like the flapper dresses and big bands of the roaring twenties, that came quick on the heels of the First World War and the Spanish Flu, I believe when we cross the crisis, restaurants will come back with gusto, greeting us with gastronomic hugs, feeding us meals to write home about.
Soleil Nathwani is a New York-based Culture Writer and Film Critic. A former Film Executive and Hedge Fund COO, Soleil hails from London and Mumbai. Twitter: @soleilnathwani