For years, Eldridge Street, the block I grew up on, was littered with empty crack vials. Businesses of any kind were scarce. These days, new, enchanted establishments are popping up. From Apizz, where my parents (artists who renovated their tenement home in the ‘80’s) proudly spent an anniversary dinner, to Family Recipe, a sleek Japanese restaurant run by Akiko Thurnauer.
Akiko was born in Japan, but has spent the past fifteen years in New York. “I wanted to open a restaurant that was a little bit hidden, not on an obvious street like Orchard or Ludlow, where it’s more party and people come for drink. I like to have people who really come for food,” Thurnauer told me in her open kitchen space, which she helped design. “I moved to Grand Street five years ago, but I’ve always lived in Nolita or the Lower East Side, so I know the neighborhood.”
Indeed, over uniquely infused sake ice cream, with a slightly spicy hint of Egg Nog, Thurnauer and I were able to compare notes on neighborhood changes. I still feel nostalgic for the pizza places and corner bodegas that have been replaced by bougie wine bars. Yet, when I asked Akiko about all the changes in the area and how she feels being part of that change, I was enlightened by her response.
“In the Lower East Side, each street has a different character. People say New York has changed a lot, but that’s the nature of cities. They’re always changing, Tokyo, Milan, Paris. I still find a lot of great things about the Lower East Side. The Lower East Side has more of its own culture. The projects will never go anywhere. So many old Jewish people live in my building. I really like it, except people think I’m Chinese. They ask “How’s your Chinese restaurant?” and I just say “It’s great!” We support each other.”
This ethnically explosive vibe has always been a staple of the Lower East Side’s character. When my Jewish grandmother lived on Pitt Street and Houston in the 1930’s, one way immigrants got through the depression was to swap food and stories. Bialys for Ravioli and later, when I was raised on those same streets in the late ‘80s, Mofongo for Lo Mein.
The idea of accepting and exploring cultural differences and similarities through cuisine is, in fact, a huge part of what Family Recipe is all about. “I grew up with parents who loved food. My father worked with a travel agency and went all over the world when I was a kid. He brought home a lot of ingredients from Europe, Asia and the Middle East, for example, porcini mushrooms from Italy, olive oil or foie gras. I didn’t go to culinary school, so this was my fundamental culinary experience.”
Akiko’s menu reflects this diversity, with dishes like brussel sprouts served with capers, shallots, miso and pine nuts; spicy slow-cooked short ribs; and a chocolate cake recipe borrowed from her husband’s Swiss aunt, a prized family secret. British beers and select wines from Long Island wash down the eclectic pairings. When asked where her inspiration and daring come from, Thurnauer responds, “I’m a little bit of an eccentric personality. I went to art school.”
Indeed, Thurnauer’s story is essentially a very LES one. For myself and the kids I grew up with, creativity and hustling went hand in hand. When Akiko came to the city, she used her artistic eye for graphic design. “I really started hating computers and staring at a screen all day. I was always a good cook, but I didn’t know how to move forward. I thought about culinary school, but it was so expensive.”
While contemplating how to parlay her passion into a full-time profession, Akiko began making bento boxes for her husband. “I had stopped working completely. My husband worked in magazine publishing at the time and because I wanted to do something, I started making bento boxes for his lunch every day. His co-workers started noticing and going, ‘That’s interesting! I want a bento box. Can you ask your wife to make it for me?’ He was working right near Conde Nast and Reuters, so I then started making them for other companies. I didn’t plan it, but it became a business. After the New York Times wrote about it, I was getting over 50 calls a day and I lived in a very small apartment, with a very small kitchen and I had a cat,” Akiko laughs. Yet, it was this entrepreneurial savvy that then led to a job cooking at Nobu, experiences in high-end catering and eventually, her decision to open Family Recipe.
Family Recipe represents both Thurnauer’s exceptional upbringing and her expertise in the art of taste. Both the menu and the space in which diners are served, reflect Akiko’s openness and zeal for fresh eating experiences, as well as her commitment to community. “The reason I chose this space was that I wanted to make an open kitchen. This is really important for me. I grew up in Japan where we have lots of open kitchens in sushi bars and grilled chicken stands. That is in our culture. My food is not typical Japanese food, but I wanted to bring Japanese elements to my restaurant. So many chefs work in nasty basements and are treated bad. I wanted to change that system.”
Family Recipe is open Monday-Saturday from 6 p.m.-midnight. Reservations are taken for the 7 p.m. seating; later in the evening it’s first-come-first-served. The restaurant is located at 231 Eldridge Street. Click here for the dinner menu.
TLD columnist Royal Young, born and raised on the Lower East Side, is a New York City author. He contributes literary coverage to Interview Magazine and the new web site Holy Diver. Young recently completed “Fame Shark,” his memoir.