In Search of the Old and Authentic on the New Broadway
In order to get to my purpose, I need to go the long way today. This might, in fact, be two posts mashed up, but I am willing to risk it.
Readers may have sensed my appreciation for a New York that no longer exists except as a state of mind. Before anyone jumps on me for being against progress or worse, let me conjure that old-time feeling, if I am able. Perhaps my latest attack of spleen came from the closing of Café Edison. Or maybe it comes from these past few free-from-work, freewheeling days walking up and down a relatively deserted Broadway and seeing friendly ghosts of vanished places that were so comforting but are now long gone.
An UWS spot I loved was Cinema Studio 1 & 2. Can you still see the logo painted as a mural on the brick wall high above the low-lying building? Cinema Studio was a film house so well-curated that you could go into it on a whim, choose anything and come out a winner. I think Cinema Paradisio or Shoah was the last film I saw at Cinema Studio before the building was demolished to make way for the "Lincoln Square" Barnes & Noble, which itself ceded to Century 21. Which will cede to something else. Which will just reinforce in my mind that for three decades there stood a great – and yet now lost – element of my city.
Right next to the cinema – and you can see it here so you, too, may share my nostalgia – was a classic, hole-in-the-wall Greek diner, John's Coffee Shop. You know, a quick, piping hot cup of coffee in a blue and white Anthora coffee cup kind of place. I loved it because you could spirit your hot cuppa in to the film right next door. The only dialogue was light or dark and how many sugars. This was a place lacking pretension. Square meal, fair deal sort of joint. It wasn't old, and it wasn't modern. It was of its era. In its moment. Until time steamrolled over it. And I miss it, dagnabbit.
So why am I telling you this? Why the paean to a Broadway that served its residents. A neighborhood fixture that had no pretense. An aversion to glitz and sleek in a desert of chains and anonymity that was once a patchwork of real neighborhoods? Because in our little ray of Sun-Chan, we have the old Broadway!
Step through the door into this oasis and you travel through time – not that Sun-Chan has even been there that long. But come to think of it, ten years is a Broadway eternity these days. The Barnes & Noble in Lincoln Square didn't last much longer. Anyway, Sun-Chan (2707 Broadway near W. 103rd Street), replaced Jo-An, a similar restaurant named for its American proprietress whose Japanese was pretty darn good; but her peppy restaurant didn't last. I cannot remember what was there before Jo-An. But Sun-Chan feels like it's been there forever. And I hope it will never change. On a bad day, the vacant deli next door gives me pause.
The "Hyper Local Eats" blog feature was meant to single out one special dish, one unique treat at a time, from one of our neighborhood food purveyors. But with Sun-Chan, that's like asking a mother of ten to hold out just one favorite child. Cannot be done. But I wanted to write about Sun-Chan not just to tip my hat to their wonderful comfort food but also to make a point about the ambiance. Not a whit of pretension. You walk in to a chorus of traditional Japanese greetings, and a team of waitresses -- almost always female personnel -- greet and seat you. The fact that it is always the same faces, with a new employee coming aboard from time to time and an alumna returning every so often, tells you something about the tight-knit restaurant family. The women up front work in the closest of quarters, dancing around each other gracefully, cheerfully communicating about orders and, probably, their lives. When the waitresses seat you, for the love of Pete, order a sake. You will receive a short juice glass nested in a square lacquer cup. Then comes the treat of seeing your waitress pour until the cloudless drink flows over the glass's rim to fill your outer lacquer box. This opening gesture has the clearest of messages: "Welcome to our place. You are now in our hands, and we will be good to you." It's the Japanese version of "abbondanza."
The front is run by the loveliest of lovelies, owner Kumiko Imamura (above), who daintily helms the robata. An inferno. Unflappable come long lines or relentless heat, Kumiko is the Goddess of Umami. She churns out caramelized rice balls packing salty salmon or spicy cod roe. If her yakitori menu were an LP, it would be my desert island disc because I never get tired of any of it: chicken meatballs with a sweet-salty glaze, toro salmon and scallion skewers, roasted ginkgo nuts, scrumptiously salted yellow tail collar, smoky mackerel. Each morsel comes off her iron grill in the requisite, slow-food time it takes to make something this authentic.
Her husband Tokishige mans the kitchen in back…but he might also show up at your door with a delivery. How? I do not know! But if Kumiko is Queen, Tokishige is surely King of Sun-Chan. With him, you can go cold or hot and not go wrong: cool, crisp daikon radish sticks with spicy cod dip, still-warm braised pumpkin in a savory slightly fishy broth, unctious sweet-and-sour tinged barbecued eel over rice, cabbage stir fries, donburis, crunchy light tempura. And sushi.
Queen of Queens and King of Kings, may you reign forever and ever.
So why the long prelude about nostalgia? It's because the mere fact that a Sun-Chan can arrive, continue to exist, and thrive without being a hipster emporium or crazy clamoring hotspot is an epiphany to me. It gives me hope that the rooted and real New York I have such fondness for is still attainable. It's not just the wonderful food and the care with which it is prepared. It is that they make people feel like individuals as they walk through to the dining room. They remember you when you come back. And they cook their hearts out for you. And if you are really lucky, one day I'll tell you about what happens there after 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
Lincoln Square may keep its Bar Boulud. Its Nick and Toni's. Its The Smith. And I will continue to see John's Coffee Shop and Cinema Studio when I look through the plate glass of Century 21. Because I have Sun-Chan. And Sun-Chan on my corner makes me happy.