An alimentary excursion

| 21 Sep 2016 | 06:31


Covering Ground with Eli Zabar.


Mileage covered: 1.49 miles + a bit of driving. Sunny, 79 degrees

Needing little introduction, Eli Zabar is the eponymous head of one of the city’s most famous sources for pretty much anything anyone would want to eat anywhere and at almost any time. Since 1973.

They used to say there was a huge kitchen under Third Avenue in the East 70s that served all the Italian restaurants on the Upper East Side. Over the years, with evolved palates, a kitchen really was built that would serve a large swath of the UES.

And Eli Zabar is captain of the ship.

Eager to give a soup to nuts tour of his empire, he invited me to meet him at his East 92nd Street townhouse.

I am welcomed by the two Zabar Wheaten Terriers, Geo and Pippa. A dog owner myself, we are off to a fine start.

“I’ve been living in that house for 25 years,” Eli tells me as we strike out on our rounds. “My wife and I lived in a house around the corner for maybe three or four years before that. So we have lived in between 91st and 9nd Streets for three decades.”

We hang a left at Madison to begin our tour of the Realm of Eli. First station: Eli’s Wine Bar 91, corner of East 91st and Madison.

“Everybody who ever had children in this neighborhood spent time in Jackson Hole,” he says, referring to the spot’s former tenant.

In gutting and renovating, “We did a lot of historical research on this (1893/94) building. I hired an architectural historian, Christopher Gray (who wrote a column on real estate history in The New York Times for 30 years).

“When this building was built, Madison had no retail. They had very fancy stoops that went up to the building. This backs up on the Carnegie Mansion and very possibly associates of Carnegie lived here.”

Clearly enjoying the role of architectural docent, Eli describes how things changed forever in the ‘30s. Retail came to define what Madison Avenue would become, at least in Midtown and Carnegie Hill.

The building itself was reconfigured, entrances moved, floors and basements eliminated. Enter Mr. Zabar, circa. 2015, and history marched backwards:

“This parquet floor came from Paris. From a house build in 1870. The staircase came from a house in Harlem that was built in 1890.”

Like his outpost on Third and 79th Street and its white table partner up a block at Eli’s, Eli’s Wine Bar 91 wakes up as a “grab-and-go” spot for any and all matters culinary, and goes to bed at night as a wine bar and restaurant.

Eli gives me a tour of the breakfast vittles, pausing at one point, his chest puffed out: “This is my famous bread pudding!”

“We make everything ourselves: every pastry you see, every bread you see, every salad you see ...”

We are out the door and in no more than ten steps we are in front of NOGLU, the only Eli venture without his familiar branding.

I’d purchased NOGLU’s (delicious!) tarts before, so I was aware that the gluten-free options here were a cut above. A big cut above.

“With a French partner I became an investor. And the managing partner. She’s about to open another one of these with a restaurant in the 7th Arrondissement off the Rue du Bac in Paris in October.

“We built a whole kitchen. There is nothing like this in New York,” he tells me.

Hopping in his van in order to cover our ground efficiently, Eli nevertheless has built his foodie Ponderosa to be easily covered on foot.

“I have maintained my business, with the exception of Grand Central, to be within walking distance. I think I learned that early on from my two brothers. They own Zabar’s on the West Side. My brothers Stanley and Saul. Stanley especially believed in living over the shop.”

After a quick stop at his Essentials store on Lex and 87th Street, Eli tells me the origin of the “Essentials” concept.

“For eight years I ran the farmers market out in Amagansett. I was in an operating partnership with the Taconic Land Trust. They had been gifted a piece of land. With a farm stand on it.

“They were desperate for an operator. Someone on the board said why not contact Eli Zabar. He comes out here because his mother-in-law lives here.

“Up until that point everything was made in the Third Avenue store. Or in the Vinegar Factory. It wasn’t until Amagansett that I blew out the ‘commissary’ ideas. Everything would be made in one place. And then distributed.”

Eli’s new paradigm took off. And it evolved: they learned how to freeze the croissants at 90th Street, then bake them at the stores.

Double parking, we duck into E.A.T., Madison and 80th Street.

“This is my first store. All the food they serve here is made here. This has nothing to do with the commissary concept. It goes back to my original theory of food. It’s better to make one salad six times a day than to make different salads once a day. It’s better to make one thing many times than to make a million things one time a day. It gets old.

“Everything here is from my original recipes.”

It’s en route to Eli’s on Third Avenue that Eli tells me about his newest ventures. We pass his Essentials on Third and 79th which, “Is one of the things I’m most happy about. It’s is my son’s (Oliver’s) Nightshift. “

Thrilled, and relieved (“Whew!”), that another Zabar is in the business — a twin son, in New Haven, is also following the family food chain with a juice bar — Eli says the model he described at 91st Street is flourishing further down in 10028.

Again, the shop opens with eggs and waffles, transitions to grab-and-go lunch fare and then voilas into a millennial cocktail outpost.

“It plays against everything I know in retailing. I’m always saying we don’t want any lines. Every person has to be taken care of immediately. If you’re in a rush you don’t go here!”

At Eli’s I meet the honchos that steer the largest of his food emporia. Each of whom is being pressed into tutorial service later this year as Eli parlays each of the store’s department managers’ skills into a series of classes.

“Were going to have our wine classes, flower arranging classes, we’re going to have our courses in bread-making, coffee ...”

Regular visitors to Eli’s will recognize some of the professors involved. There’s Joe Catalano, Professor of Fish; Nichole Fraser, Doctor of Flower Arranging; and Marc Reyes, Adjunct Professor of Meat. With details still to come, turning the sales floor into a foodie academia is just one of several of the company’s newest ventures.

The final stop on our tour of the realm is what Eli calls his commissary. Above, around, across and within his Vinegar Factory, this is where his team whips together everything his customers will grab-and-go, nosh or dine on. To the visitor, it is a working marvel, food manufacturing, Manhattan-style. And it’s where his third 2016 venture is being incubated.

“We have about a quarter of an acre of greenhouses on top of the roof. And tomatoes and baby lettuces are my two most important crops,” says this urban farmer. “We have a type of strawberry that no one else has. Mara des bois. So sweet so delicious. We have a few small beds. Everywhere we have an area we’re going to plant those.”

As we zig-zag through the warren of kitchens and bakeries, beyond the construction shop, we land in the small area where the company’s yet-to-be-named online home delivery venture is evolving.

In competing with companies like Blue Apron, the service will send a text message with a photo of the day’s options. The text-ee has until 11:00 a.m. to place that day’s order and number of servings that, unlike others in the field of easy home-cookery, is not subscription based. And it’s all fulfilled from … you guessed it, the commissary.

“The only thing you need is salt, pepper and olive oil,” Eli proclaims. “Nobody can be as fresh or as quality as I am,” noting that his brick and mortar is zip-code friendly to his planned catchment area.

“This is the biggest, most important new thing I’m doing.”

Sort of like his grab-and-go model, only this one is more text and get!