Industry Insiders: Matt Levine, Native Son

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New York entrepreneur Matt Levine is busier than ever these days. Not only is Sons of Essex, the upscale American restaurant he co-owns with Michael Shah, one of the hottest tables on the Lower East Side, he’s also staying on top of the duo’s just-opened drink spot, Cocktail Bodega. We caught up with Levine to ask him about his background, his hospitality ideas, his favorite hangouts, and what exactly goes into a “Gin Hulk” cocktail. 

Where are you from and how did you get into the hospitality business?
I was born and raised in Brooklyn, then grew up right by the JFK airport, in the Five Towns area. You could say I grew up in the hospitality business, bar-backing and serving while in high school and then bartending during college, and eventually bartending in the city every summer.  From my later teen years and early twenties, I started throwing parties and special events throughout the city. Working within the fashion and nightlife world, I started a clothing line in 2004.  Besides giving me an opportunity to travel, the clothing line gave me a creative outlet and the resources to eventually invest in my real passion-hospitality. At the age of 26 I opened The Eldridge.
 
What was the Eldridge like?
The Eldridge provided another creative outlet, and in that 1,000 square foot space, we did some amazing things.  The Eldridge had a great run, was a learning experience from an operational standpoint, and gave me the opportunity to operate F & B on a hotel level, as well as open up satellite locations and management deals. And then when 133 Essex Street came into discussion, I had an asset with The Eldridge, and an opportunity to sell the liquor license and the lease for 247 Eldridge Street, so I did so, and started building out what is now Sons of Essex.
 
What is an average day like for you, if there is such a thing as an average day?
I generally wake up at 7:00 am every morning, check emails, watch a little ESPN, walk my extremely lazy and stubborn English bulldog, Boss, and get to my office by 8:30 am.  I’ll head to Sons of Essex in the afternoon for meetings, and to our new project-Cocktail Bodega.  I generally get home around 8:00 pm, walk Boss again (or should I say he walks me) – then head back to Sons of Essex for dinner with friends and then … it starts all over the next day. Exciting, right?
 
What’s the greatest challenge of running a successful restaurant?
The greatest challenge is keeping consistency levels to the standards we expect. It’s always someone’s first experience at Sons of Essex, always someone’s first Asian calamari salad, someone’s first truffle mushroom pizza and so on – so it’s important to have the customer service and quality of product perfected. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.
 
What kind of place is Sons of Essex? Where did the name come from?
We named the restaurant after the Sons of Liberty, who were a movement of shopkeepers, artisans, workers, and tradesmen who held down places like the Lower East Side when the British tried to take it over.  The Sons of Liberty were the voice of the people, the voice of the streets (organizing the Boston Tea Party, taking down the Stamp Act) and with us being located on Essex Street, we wanted to pay homage to those who looked out for our rights, the people’s rights. Sons of Liberty + Essex Street = Sons of Essex
 
What’s the menu like?
The Sons of Essex menu is a reflection of the diverse melting pot of cultures that have helped develop the Lower East Side to what we know of it today.  The old-school scene has been described as a Bowery Boys atmosphere and Gangs of New York vibe that pays homage to the history of the Lower East Side. We fuse a traditional American comfort food menu with the spices of Lower East Side immigrants and the use of local ingredients and Essex Street Market fruits and vegetables.
 
Tell me about Cocktail Bodega. 
Cocktail Bodega serves liquor-blended smoothies and spiked fresh-squeezed juices, with a creative and innovative take on traditional street food by my dude, Chef Roblé.
 
Where does the Bodega part come in?
Bodegas represent a strong sense of community within the Lower East Side, and with the use of fresh fruits and fresh vegetables in the cocktail program at Cocktail Bodega, the name Bodega seemed like a natural fit.
 
Will cocktail bodega specialize in any particular spirits or cocktails?
Throw a little vodka into your strawberry-mango smoothie, or have some rum with fresh vegetable juice, that’s what Cocktail Bodega is all about.
 
What’s your favorite cocktail to get there?
My favorite cocktail is the Gin Hulk: Hendrick’s Gin, freshly juiced apple, freshly juiced cucumber, freshly juiced spinach, lemon squeeze, and a cucumber garnish.
 
Other than your own venues, where do you like to go out in New York?
When not at Sons of Essex, I have my Lower East Side comfort zone. Barrio Chino, Les Enfants Terribles, Fat Radish for dinner, 169 Bar, Epstein’s, and Motor City for cocktails.  Throw me anywhere with my friends, a beer, and I am good.
 
To what do you attribute your success? Any secrets you can share?
I think it’s important to put your staff and team first, and lead by example.  When you walk into Sons of Essex, you aren’t coming because of the owners, you are coming because of the atmosphere and vibe, the customer service, and of course, most important – the food itself. All of this is a shared vision. I laid out the foundation and the operations, but the staff executes all the deliverables for the customer experience.
 
What do you like to do in your spare time to relax and recharge?
Bikram yoga is my relax & recharge time, checking out Hester Street Fair on Saturdays for good grub, hanging at Tompkins Square Park to chill, checking out an indie film at the Angelica or Sunshine … all help me balance the work week.
 
[Photo: The Lo-Down]

Where Celebs Go Out: Wes Anderson, Emmy Rossum, Charlotte Ronson, & More

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At Lucky magazine’s Lucky Shops:

● KATRINA BOWDEN – “I love Café Mogador in the East Village. It’s Moroccan, and they have these great fish and chicken kebabs and really cool dishes and olives and bread. It’s really good. And they have this fish soup that’s amazing, on special sometimes.”

● ANA ORTIZ – “I’m a very local person right now because I don’t have a lot of time away. So there’s this really groovy little place across the street from me called the Speak Low bar and it’s in Dumbo in Brooklyn, and it’s just underneath Rice. It’s a really funky, hip little bar. And they have the most delicious cocktails. As soon as I was able to drink after giving birth, I went down there. They have the best martini I ever had!”

At The Fantastic Mr. Fox press day:

● WES ANDERSON – “There’s a place in Los Angeles called Nishimura that’s a sushi place. That’s a great place. I would recommend that one.”

At launch party for Yoga Wii by Dreamcatcher Interactive Inc.:

● ANJA RUBIK – “Right now — it changes, of course — right now, I’m addicted to Matsuri. It’s a Japanese restaurant in the Maritime Hotel. I just love the food there. It’s incredible and the atmosphere they create there is so beautiful. I love it there. I love the Cipriani’s uptown. I love it. The food is so great. And it also has an incredible atmosphere. Da Silvano is great. Bar Pitti is amazing. It has Italian food, which is fantastic. I love Gobo. It’s all this organic food, vegetarian. It’s on Sixth Avenue near Eighth Street or Seventh Street.”

At Fashion Group International’s Night of Stars:

● SIMON DOONAN – “I love Il Cantinori. It’s around the corner from my house. The risotto primavera is killer!”

● EMMY ROSSUM – “I really like David Burke Townhouse. I love that lollypop tree that comes out at the end. There’s like a cheesecake lollypop tree. It looks like a lollypop, but it’s a ball of cheesecake on the end of stick and it’s in this holder that makes it look like a tree. I really like eating sushi at Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, at like 4am.”

● TOMMY HILFIGER – “Rebecca’s in Greenwich, Connecticut. Incredibly delicious. It’s simple, but it’s really, really high-quality food and always well done — consistent. It’s prepared very well.”

● MARK RONSON – “My favorite restaurant in New York is, probably, Gino’s uptown on 60th and Lex. The angel hair with the secret sauce. They call it that. ‘Cause when you’re a kid, and anyone tells you something’s secret, of course, you like think it’s amazing. In the whole word, I don’t know. I wish — I’m really good at answering these questions, but not on the spot.”

● DITA VON TEESE – “I love going to London to eat. I love China Tang at the Dorchester because I love the Art Deco Chinese interior. I love the Wolseley in London. And I’m not familiar with New York restaurants. It seems like they’re ever changing, so …”

At Purgatorio pop-up club:

● JOSH LUCAS – “Oh, the old school — Raoul’s is one of my all-time favorites. And there’s a place right down in my neighborhood, called Broadway East, which is a really interesting new kind of organic, sexy restaurant I like a lot. Also, down by my place, Les Enfants Terribles, you know that place? A good, little fun one. Those are my three that come to mind immediately.”

● SIMON HAMMERSTEIN – “That’s a hard question. I kind of like the 18th floor of the Standard — the bar on the 18th floor. I think he’s done a really good job with that.”

● CHRISTIAN SIRIANO – “In New York, I love the Cooper Square Hotel. We have dinner there a lot, hang out there — really, really fun. But, like hang out, hang out spots — where do we go? Oh, Bagatelle, very fabulous. I’m pretty low key, so I feel like — my couch, that’s where we go to hang out and have a party.”

At Motorola’s party for Droid phone with Verizon service:

● PATRICK HEUSINGER – “I just went to Delicatessen for the first time. I really enjoyed that. We watch Sunday and Monday football at Brother Jimmy’s on the Upper West Side. Yeah, it’s great. We’ve been going there since I was in college because I went to college here in New York, too. And then, I go to the bar, Niagara, on the Lower East Side a lot. That’s one of my haunts. I probably go there once a week. One of my best friends works there, so — it’s on 7th and Avenue A.

● JUDAH FRIEDLANDER – “I don’t drink or anything. I’m a role model for children. But I do eat. The place I really crave is called Sarajevo. It’s in Astoria — Bosnian owners. It’s basically Yugoslavian food. Awesome. That’s the place I crave more than any place. Cevapcici is the main thing. It’s kind of like ground beef and lamb on skewers, and you serve it in this fresh, homemade bread. And there’s this spread called Kajmak. It’s kind of like a sour-cream spread, except a million times better. And then you put ajvar on it, also, which is a like a tomato, red pepper, eggplant spread. And then you put raw onions on it, and you’re in heaven, baby! And you got power! And you’re ready to kick ass! It’s good stuff. The other thing they have is stuffed cabbage with tomato sauce, which they call sarma. It’s in Astoria. It’s on 34th Avenue and 38th Street. It’s so good. That’s my favorite food. I like all the ethnic, little take-out type places. Those are my favorite places.”

At launch of fashion game Style Savvy for the Nintendo DS and DSi:

● CHARLOTTE RONSON – “I love Bar Pitti on 6th Avenue. It’s nice and easy. You can sit outside when the weather is nice. You always run into someone you know. For movies, the Anjelika is nice. It’s clean. I’m drawn to movies that play there. In London, I love Holland Park, Kensington High Street — great area with lots of good shops and walking distance from my parents’ home. La Famiglia is a great restaurant.”

At launch party for Scupltz shapewear and legwear:

● ROBERT VERDI –Le Singe Vert on 7th Avenue. It means the Green Monkey. I was born in ’68, the year of the monkey. I love it. Novita, on 22nd Street, off of Park Avenue. It feels very insider; the food is fabulous. There’s a scene, but it’s not sceney. Da Silvano, because I feel like a big schmaltz when I go there ’cause I’m treated better than I really am. He’s really sweet. I’m very good friends with his wife, Marisa, who treats me like family. Since I grew up in a restaurant family, it’s a feeling I like to have when I go out to eat.

After Dark Makeup: Lower East Side & Just Cavalli

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After the sun goes down, the makeup brushes come out in full force. Beauty junkies can get away with a lot when roaming New York’s Lower East Side: the bars are dark, the drinking is heavy, and people look good in that uncombed, rolled-out-of-bed way. Just Cavalli sent this LES bar-hopper down the S/S 2010 runway the other day in Milan. She looks exactly the girls we know who shop at Blue&Cream and Opening Ceremony, hang out at White Slab, Darkroom, and Gallery Bar, eat at Les Enfants Terribles, and wear a ton of MAC. Appropriate, since MAC was in charge of creating the look. Maxine Leonard, the artist in charge, describes the look as “rock n’ roll to reflect the collection. The girls look a bit like they did their makeup themselves and had a great night out.” Here’s how the pros captured the LES girl.

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Base ● Foundation: Studio Moisture Tint SPF 15. ● Cheeks: Blushcreme in Joie de Vivre.

Eyes ● Base: Pro Black Black Paintstick. ● Liner: Kohl Power Pencil in Feline. ● Shadow: Pro Pigment in Black Black. ● Liquid Liner: Boot Black. ● Lipstick: Black Knight (applied on lid). ● Blush: Powder Blush Azalea (applied on brow bone). ● Mascara: Pro Lash Mascara in Coal Black.

Lips ● Gloss: Lipglass in Frankly Fresh.