Watch a Chinese Soprano Serenade the Nello Elite

There’s lunch, there’s drunch (dinner + drunk + lunch), and then there’s Nello, where the European art of the extended late afternoon meal has reached theatrical levels. I was having lunch at the celeb-heavy eatery recently with proprietor Nello Balan, John A. Gotti accountant Paul Tong, and a Chinese soprano named Hsuan Ma, who’d just stopped by to say hello before her performance of Traditional Chinese Folk songs at the China Institute. She introduced herself, asked for a tea, and whispered that she was taking care of her voice for an upcoming performance. Naturally, we cajoled her into regaling us with aforementioned Chinese heat, much to the delight of the Nello patrons.  

You can catch Hsuan Ma’s “traditional folk tunes and modern art songs” this Tuesday, December 13 at  7 p.m. at the China Institute on E. 65th Street, or if you’re fortunate, the next time you’re having a three-hour drunch at Nello. 

Industry Insiders: Ismael Alba, Gaucho King of New York

Ismael Alba not only named his stellar East Village steakhouse Buenos Aires – he’s gone to extraordinary lengths to make it the most authentic Argentine steakhouse in town despite the city’s Draconian standards. Here, Alba dishes on creating the perfect legal grill, producing Oscar winners, his pick for best steakhouse on Earth, US-Cuba relations, and the one thing he wouldn’t be caught dead doing in his restaurant.

Rare, medium, or well done? When you cook meat medium or medium-well, the fat gets cooked and makes it more flavorful. But Americans like their meat rare so the fat doesn’t get cooked, meaning there’s not as much flavor. In Argentina we got used to eating everything well done because – to be frank – it killed the bacteria. Nowadays it’s got more to do with the flavor.

On US-friendly cuts of meat at Buenos Aires: My favorite cut is the asado, which are called short ribs here in the States. Americans don’t tend to order it at Buenos Aires, because it’s on the bone and too fatty for them. People in New York love the leaner cuts like lomo (filet mignon) or entraña (skirt steak).

On replicating the traditional Argentine grill experience in hyper-regulated New York City: The meat is from Nebraska or Canada. We can’t order meat from Argentina since 2001 on account of the USDA ban on Argentine meat. The meat I buy here is the best, and the butchering is all done here on the premises in Argentine style, so we have all Argentine cuts of Aberdeen Angus beef. The city won’t let you use coal, so I built a gas grill with the traditional Argentine style V-shaped rods that capture the fat. I then added a ceramic plate to get the even heat like you would on an actual Argentine coal grill. In the US, the health department forces you to take the meat out of the refrigerator and put it on the grill immediately, which is a problem because you shouldn’t take a cut that’s cold and just drop it on the grill, which is what the city forces you to do. Ideally, it should be at room temperature first. So I made a second intermediate section on my grill that brings the temperature up gradually before the meat goes on the full grill. You could say it’s as close to an Argentine experience as you can have in a restaurant in New York, legally.

On the top Argentine wine: There are several. Alfa Cruz, Catena Alta, Catena Argentino, and Cobos.

On coming to America as a young man: I came to New York in 1980 and went to Columbia University. When the Argentine peso collapsed, I stopped going to school and had to start working. I came because my close friend, Juan Jose Campanella, convinced me to come with him. He was studying film at NYU and I was one of his actors in his first films. I put $2,000 from my pocket into one of his very first theatrical productions, which I earned waiting tables, and was one of his first producers. We worked on a few other projects together actually, none of which made any money. Last year he won the Academy Award for best foreign picture, and we’re still close friends.

On his start in the industry: After leaving Columbia, I started working as a busboy at the Waldorf Astoria, and at night I’d wait tables at Victor’s Café on 71st and Columbus Ave. I had a friend Pablo who lived on 5th Ave. right next to Jackie O in a very posh building, and I went to visit him once and a lady who lived there asked me if I knew how to paint. Of course I said I did, and it turned out she owned 154 buildings in Manhattan. So I started painting buildings for her and began meeting people and listening, then reading books about plumbing and carpentry, and eventually got into the construction business. This building where the restaurant is now I got for next to nothing in 1997.

On the onset of winter: I love having four distinct seasons. We store meat in the refrigerator, so it must make you live longer to be exposed to the cold. We’re all meat after all.

On fostering US-Cuba relations over beef: Two great customers of mine at the restaurant were Rodrigo Malmierca, who was the Permanent Representative of Cuba to the UN until last year, and Alejandro Wolff, who was his US counterpart at the United Nations. They both used to come to eat here regularly before they were re-assigned to other posts and left New York. One day they’re sitting here eating at separate tables alone and I tell them, ‘Guys, come on.’ And they got up and went over to say hi to each other, and chatted very frankly for a bit about well known diplomatic issues that shall remain confidential, since I don’t discuss politics. Of course they knew each other from work but sometimes you need a nice steak and a glass of wine to bridge the diplomatic gap.

On his favorite restaurant in Buenos Aires, Argentina: Oviedo

On the best steakhouse in the world: La Brigada in Buenos Aires. The chinchulines trenzados Hugo makes….that’s the best by far. And the quality is constant.

On the best restaurant in New York: Nello. Excellent quality and consistent year after year, which is very difficult to achieve.

On the East Village: I’ve been here for 25 years and I’ve had the restaurant for the last five. I preferred it before, in the 70’s and 80’s. The movies were better in the 70’s and the cultural life of the city was richer.

On his restaurant roots: My father was Spanish and had Argentine restaurants in Buenos Aires. I was born into this. I remember as a kid I’d stock the refrigerators and peel potatoes at night for the next day. I also washed dishes, and pretty soon I was waiting on tables for tips. I liked making money.

On expansion: I don’t know if I’ll ever open another restaurant. A restaurant is something personal, and you can’t be in two places at once.

On the one thing he’d never do at his restaurant: Put a River Plate jersey on the wall.

World Cup Fever in New York City Bars and Restaurants: Nello

New York City is probably the closest thing to actually experiencing the World Cup in person. Watch the World Cup in Rome and you’re going to get the Italian perspective, Madrid and you’ll witness the Spanish exuberance. If you happen to be in Rio or Buenos Aires, then you’d better root for the local team lest you catch a beat down. So on and so forth around the globe. New York City, on the other hand, is sort of like going to the grand event itself—a lively mix of foreigners rooting for their home teams, from South Korea to Chile to Cote d’ Ivoire. Nowhere is this more present than at the many fine restaurants and bars around town, where a lot of the owners, staff and patrons are already eagerly anticipating the Mundial, which kicks off June 11th. In the next few weeks, I’ll be checking in on many such spots around the city where the World Cup flavor is strongest.

In the video below, check out two of the Italian cats who work at the posh Nello on Madison Ave, Vincenzo and Luca, taking a break from serving Russian oligarchs and Mickey Rourke delicious pasta to big up Diego Maradona with the classic Napoli tifosi chant “Ho Visto Maradona” which translates to “I’ve seen Maradona” (and now I’m in love).

And now check out what it sounds like when 70,000 Napolitanos sing the same tune while lighting flares and going bananas.

Where Celebs Go Out: Hilary Duff, Michelle Trachtenberg, Kristin Bell

Martha Stewart at Good Housekeeping‘s 125th anniversary “Shine On” benefit for the National Women’s History Museum – Mmm. I love La Grenouille. I love everything of Jean Georges. I love everything of Daniel. And I love Benoit, right around the corner, yeah. Every one of them has its specialty, of course. If you go to Benoit, you can have the oysters—they’re delicious. The souflees are like the best. And at Grenouille—the frog’s legs.

Hilary Duff – That’s a good one, I have to answer that. In L.A, Giorgio Baldi. ● Meryl Streep – Women’s National History Museum, which is yet-to-be-built on the mall, in D.C. ● Michelle TrachtenbergYerba Buena. ● Kristin Bell – In Los Angeles, Real Food Daily. ● Gayle King – I love Jean Georges and I just discovered Quality Meats the other day on 58th, really good. ● Candice BergenJean Georges at the Mark, at the moment. ● Liz SmithSwifty’s, at Lexington between 72nd and 73rd. It inherited the old Mortimer’s crowd, but it’s smaller. They just have the kind of food I love. I can always find something wonderful to eat there: tuna carpaccio, their little hamburgers, vichysoisse. I like everything they do. ● Carolyn Maloney – I go in my neighborhood—Paola’s, right next door, hot dogs on the street the Four Seasons is always a great restaurant. Every corner has a great restaurant. ● Marlo Thomas: – I love Nello, Bella Blue, Il Mulino, and Primola. I’ve got a million of ’em. ● Phil Donahue – We enjoy Nello and Primola. We’re an east side crowd, so those are two of them. And I don’t get out like I used to, so I don’t have as many to suggest to you. But I hope those two will be fine, and I haven’t hurt their reputation by endorsing them. ● Laura BenantiABC Kitchen. I like Back Forty as well. They’re incredible. Their hamburger is the best in the city. And they’re both all local and organic. ● Anika Noni Rose – Dang it, I just went completely blank! Wait a minute. Give me a second because I love to eat, and I am a restaurant girl. Pio Pio is Peruvian and has the best chicken in the world. It’s on 44th and 10th Avenue. ● Cheryl Tiegs – I live in Los Angeles. The Beverly Hills Hotel Polo Lounge, and MyHouse.

Where Celebs Go

1. Naomi Campbell @ Interview magazine’s 40th anniversary party: I don’t know. I don’t really live here so much anymore. In London? I don’t live in London. I live in Russia. Favorite restaurant in Russia? Pushkin’s. 2. Chloe Sevigny @ Interview‘s 40th anniversary party: Depends on what I’m in the mood for. I like Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar in the East Village. I like Balthazar for oysters. I love Raoul’s. 3. Peter Brant @ Interview‘s 40th anniversary party: I would probably say the Four Seasons. I like that restaurant, but I have a lot of favorites. That’s, usually, a favorite of mine. There’s a lot of great things to eat there.

4. Linda Nyvltova @ Interview‘s 40th anniversary party: It’s going to be more restaurants. The pizza place, Vezzo, on 31st and Lexington. I love it. We go there all the time.

5. Brian Ermanski @ Interview‘s 40th anniversary party: Rose Bar. And I don’t really go out that much anymore. I love sitting outside Balthazar. And I don’t drink, so I don’t really like going out to drink a lot. I work a lot.

6. Sam Shipley @ Interview‘s 40th anniversary part: I really like Nancy Whiskey. That’s on the corner of 6th Avenue and Walker. We also love Lucky Strike. We also love Frank’s on 2nd Avenue and E. 6th Street.

7. Genevieve Jones @ Interview‘s 40th anniversary party: I like Café Select. I, usually, go anywhere I can walk downtown, so, like, Balthazar and coffee at Saturday Surf. I like N after work. What else? La Esquina.

8. Jessica Stam @ Interview‘s 40th anniversary party: Really, I just hang out at restaurants close to my house. I like to go to the new restaurant at the Jane Hotel [Café Gitane]. That’s really pretty because it overlooks the ocean. I like to go to Tompkins Square Park. The park itself? Yes.

9. Edward Droste @ Interview‘s 40th anniversary party: My apartment! I love Marlow & Sons. It’s a restaurant in Brooklyn. It’s one of my favorite places. I have friends that work there. I eat there all the time. And I love Mary’s Fish Camp restaurant in the West Village for seafood. But I don’t know anything about clubs, so … I’m good at food.

10. Mary-Kate Olsen @ Interview‘s 40th anniversary party: I’m not doing interviews tonight.

11. Pastor Joel Osteen @ Hezekiah Walker Presents: A Night of Hope and Prayer for Haiti: I ate at Rockefeller Center today, [near] the ice skating rink. In Houston, Texas, there’s a little Italian place that I love to eat at, not too far from my house. I don’t even know the official name of it. I like all kinds of different food.

12. Al Sharpton @ A Night of Hope and Prayer for Haiti: I have several favorite restaurants. I love, of course, Sylvia’s, but I also like to come downtown sometimes to Nello’s. I’m a salad eater now. I don’t eat meat anymore, so just salad and maybe good fish.

13. Congressman Eliot Engel @ AIPAC Northeast Regional Dinner: In the Bronx, when I was growing up, there were many, many, old, wonderful kosher delis, and they really all have disappeared, except for one in Riverdale, called Liebman’s, on W. 235th Street and Johnson Avenue. It’s an old-time New York kosher deli, and no matter where I’ve been around the United States – in Cleveland, in Pittsburgh, in Indianapolis, in Detroit – people say to me, ‘ Oh, you gotta go to this deli. It’s a real, authentic, Jewish-style deli.’ And I go there, and I always think, ‘Oh, my God, it’s so inferior to what we have in New York.!’ So that’s where I like to go.

14. Senator Chuck Schumer @ AIPAC Northeast Regional Dinner: My favorite places are in Brooklyn, and you’ll think this is funny, but Nathan’s is still one of my favorite restaurants for hot dogs and french fries. And go to the original Nathan’s in Coney Island — they taste better! But if you go to Fifth Avenue, and you go to Smith Street, you will have great, great restaurants. And we eat at a lot of them. Al Di La, we love very much. How do I pick my favorite? Best slice of pizza in Brooklyn is Roma Pizza on Seventh Avenue; I’ll tell you that. Here’s what I recommend: Po on Smith Street. It is just great!

15. Chris Blackwell @ Strawberry Hill, Jamaica: As I spend most of my time in Jamaica, when I go to New York, I love to check out wherever anybody is saying is a new place or is a great place. So, I’m not really a creature of habit, in going back to one restaurant, all the time. And in Jamaica? If you like the mountains, here is the best place, Strawberry Hill. If you like the sea and the beaches, there are three or four different places that are really good. There’s Port Antonio; and there’s a place called Frenchmen’s Cove, which is just stunningly beautiful. You can’t stay there; you can just visit and swim there. I have a property called Goldeneye, which is in Oracabessa. And then there’s a really nice hotel in Ocho Rios called Jamaica Inn. And Montego Bay is the other main area, and they have a couple of great hotels. One is Half Moon, and the other is Round Hill. And then there’s the South Coast, which has got a whole different feel. It’s, like as if you’ve gone to a different country. There’s a great place there called Jake’s. And Jake’s is, actually, a very casual type hotel, in a whole village area.

16. Daljit Dhaliwal @ History Makers conference: Right now I haven’t been doing an awful lot of entertaining, going out and being sociable. I just bought a new apartment and I’m learning how to use tools. I know how to use a screwdriver and I’m contemplating the electric drill. [There’s] some spackling, sanding and painting. I like to hang out in my neighborhood. Cafe Julienne, a bistro, serves wonderful French fare, nice hamburgers, great pate, nice cheeses, and good wine. In London, I love Notting Hill, Portabella Market — a fabulous place to hang out Saturday or any day of the week. Westborne Park, Grove and Road: West End. London is great for shopping.

Weekend at Bernie’s: Drowning Sorrows With Mr. Madoff In The Upper East Side

Sometimes when I have a tough day at work, I like to go around the corner to Old Town Bar and grab a pint of Guinness. If it’s been a particularly hectic day, I might opt for whiskey. That got me thinking. How would I drown my work sorrows if I’d just gotten busted for jacking, say, $50 billion from pretty much half New York plus (literally) their moms? I’m not gonna lie: I do admire this man’s Ponzi-schemin’ hustle. And that’s why I’m here to help a brother out. Bernie, if you’re reading this, here’s a step-by-step plan to get you off the couch, make you stop sulking, and kickstart your dormant social life! Cause you’re never gonna feel better if you just lounge around watching Nickelodeon all day.

● You’re under house arrest. It’s not so tough in your luxurious Upper East Side penthouse…but…you get lonely up there all by yourself. And your family isn’t really feeling you these days. (In fact, you would’ve gotten away with it had it not been for those meddlesome kids). Maybe a dozen lithe, vapid hotties will distract you for a bit. Don’t go the Elliot Spitzer, high-priced call girl route, which turns out is fraught with danger. Instead, hire one of New York’s finest model-wrangling promoters to throw you a hottie-packed jam at your crib. A giant pillow fight with a gaggle of Estonian girls would probably take your mind off the fact that all of your golf buddies want to beat you down. Bonus: the girls don’t speak English and won’t know you from Rupert Murdoch or Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy’s.

● Turns out one of the Russian model chicks is pretty crafty and knows how to ditch the pesky ankle bracelet the law requires you wear at all times. Once Natasha has freed you from your electronic monitoring device using only a safety pin and lube, it’s time to get dressed. Before hitting the streets, you need a disguise. Select a cozy, season-appropriate Santa outfit. This get-up will keep you both incognito and toasty warm. The party beckons.

● It’s late afternoon and the Upper East Side is a snow-tinged, winter wonderland. Sleigh ride in Central Park? Hell no, you need to drink. Start at classic upper crust haunt Swifty’s. You gingerly enter, expecting to get ice-grilled by blue-blooded New Yorkers like Muffie Potter Aston or one of the Bancroft-ladies-who-lunch, but instead find the joint eerily empty. Manuel the Guatemalan busboy shrugs and informs you that the silver foxes were last spotted on the bus heading down to the Subway Inn. You shuffle out wondering if you’re somehow responsible.

● Strolling over to Le Bilboquet, you catch a haggard Steven Spielberg a few doors down lugging a cardboard box and ringing Ron Perlman’s buzzer frantically. Perlman – one of the few people in the neighborhood who never dropped a cent in your pyramid scheme – isn’t coming to the door. You cross the street and are about to enter the tiny bistro when you notice one of the execs from Ponzi-victim BNP Paribas drinking tap water with a dejected Mort Zuckerman, another of your marks. Maybe French isn’t such a hot idea.

● Next stop: Nello. As you walk into Nello’s and whip off your fake Santa beard, you immediately get a knowing wink from another Bernie who’s been embroiled in a major New York scandal of his own: Bernie Kerick, the former police commish and a regular at the posh Madison Ave. eatery. Things are looking up for the Bern-meister! Just as you’re starting to believe everything is gonna be OK, you spot a tableful of billionaires-cum-paltry-millionaires having a lunch of mac-n-cheese and water at the coveted round table. All glare in your direction. Ouch. You duck downstairs to use to restroom and run into another scandal-loving Nello regular, Al Sharpton, waiting to use the john. He gives you a bear hug and commends you for “sticking it to the Man.” You’re overjoyed by the warmth, but then you think, “Wait, aren’t I supposed to be the Man?” This will take some getting used to.

● Perhaps you truly are a man of the people now, a modern day Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and…well, nevermind. You embrace the role regardless. Head over to Bloomingdale’s, still done up in your Santa suit, and locate a sad, preppy looking tyke. You sit him on your lap with a jovial ho-ho-ho, then ask the boy his name and what he wants for Christmas. The kid turns out to be Fred Wilpon’s nephew, so you quickly scribble an “I.O.U. for One Toy Truck and $512 million” and tell him to hand it to his uncle Freddie when’s he’s sitting down.

● As you leave Bloomie’s, you scurry past the nearby Subway Inn in case one of the down-and-out Swifty’s socialites should stumble out. It’s getting dark – time for a proper cocktail. You summon the Slavic models to the Bar Mark. It looks sort of like the well-appointed cabin of your luxury yacht, which is anchored somewhere in the Mediterranean. After four Martinis you start calculating how fast a discreet jet would take you to your boat. As you mull your getaway, one of the Latvian girls amuses herself by tossing those delicious bar nuts into your fedora. Ahh, to be so young and carefree. ● It’s midnight and time to turn in. Heading home you spot fired-up society chronicler David Patrick Columbia lurking near your building, looking for a scoop. You duck down a side street, only to be recognized by a wild-haired homeless dude brandishing a cup who yells out, “Yo Ponzi dude, all I’m asking for is some change to get a pack of smokes.” You reach into your pocket and open your wallet. Next to the 50 crisp, $1 billion bills, you find a few fives and stuff them into the wild-eyed man’s cup.The bum thanks you profusely for the generosity. It’s a positive note to end the night on, so you congenially mutter something back about being a “huge E.T. fan” and smile as Spielberg shuffles off into the darkness whistling Indy’s theme.

The Most Expensive Drinks in the US?

I have to stand up and applaud Eater, for calling out Nello Summertimes in Southampton, for selling an $18 dollar bottle of water, and a vodka soda for $27. According to them, bottles of beer and low-grade wines are $20 a piece, and a mojito $25. This includes their location on the Upper East Side. Eater calls for a boycott, but as someone who cringes when he spends $8 for a beer, I say we give them a cocktail of our own. A Molotov one.