At times, walking through New York is like passing in and out of miniature worlds. First the signage changes, then the faces. Next is the clothing, then whatever languages manage to leak out of windows, doors and passing cars. This sort of transition is felt most acutely when walking to Chinatown, one of Manhattan’s last immigrant neighborhoods with a real claim to authenticity.
Just to the west, the Lower East Side looms large with its growing set of hipster havens, droves of European tourists, boutiques and high end eateries. Straddling this fine and puzzling line between the European panache of the Lower East Side and the undeniably “eastern” bustle of Chinatown is a small restaurant named Bara.
Bara (meaning ‘rose’ in Japanese) couldn’t be in a more fitting location. Like the very block it sits on, the restaurant’s menu blurs the line between two stereotypically different cultures. Its mission is to unite French and Japanese customs and cuisine.
Initially, it’s hard to imagine how styles and flavors so seemingly disparate can gel. But the bulk of Head Chef Ian Alvarez’s culinary life has been lived in the common ground that he insists all cuisine shares.
“My grandmother had a stable of things that she would make.” He recalls. “She’s Italian, my grandfather was Czech and my father was Dominican, so she picked up a little bit of all of that.” It was in his grandmother’s kitchen that his love of food was born, and the possibility of great multicultural cuisine was instilled in him. “There doesn’t really need to be that much of a difference between any one cuisine.” He insists. “I mean, there’s only three ways to apply heat to food.”
But Ian takes pains to point out that Bara is not “some shitty fusion spot” where steak and sushi are thrown together. Bara’s menu and aesthetic is strictly based on a concept that is common to France and Japan: the wine bar and the izakaya, respectively.
“The culture of drinking and eating in both countries is very similar.” He pauses. “In both of those specific environments they take pretty simple food, apply a lot of care to it and use the best ingredients. It’s meant to be consumed over a long period of time while drinking.” He nods, “the concept is exactly the same.”
Bara serves dishes that would make sense in both Japan and France. A few cases of wine are plopped down next a stack of Japanese lager as Ian notes “there’s a love affair between Japan and France. It’s not too far of a stretch to think that most of the dishes here you could have in Tokyo or in Paris.”
“There is some tension,” he acknowledges, “but I think it creates interesting food when you allow those tensions to play off one another.” The ever changing menu lives up to Ian’s promise. From bok choy to brussel sprouts, and Sake to Syrah, Bara is a place to savor sophisticated takes on simple dishes and pretty much, to drink.
As in most cases, the importance of drinking cannot be understated. Taking the time to sip and sit with food is the universal tradition that brought Bara to life, and the one that unites its menu. The wine list itself- made up entirely of organic and biodynamic wines -plays a large role in the experience the restaurant offers, and offers a platform for both cuisines to sit on, side by side.
“The dishes are meant to not compete with whatever you’re drinking.” Ian points out. “I think that sometimes if you get plates that are too fussy it’s gonna distract from the experience of drinking.” The stack of wine and beer boxes has now grown to the height of the table he is seated at. “At the base of it, this place is supposed to show that drinking and eating are on an equal level.”
Bara is many things: an attempt to bring globalism to our plate, a project born of passion and personal experience, an experiment in multiculturalism and perhaps most importantly, a good ‘ole watering hole.
But at it’s core, this restaurant is devoted to reminding us (in a creative and delicious way) that the things that unite us need not transcend a great meal and a few good drinks, no matter who we are and where we head afterwards.