‘taste’ Leaves All Wanting Seconds

Benefits YMCA Youth Program

The Taste of Ridgewood, held Apr. 10 at the Ridgewood YMCA, brought together more than 150 people and eateries as diverse as the neighborhood they call home.

Minutes after the event started attendees had transformed into globe-trotting gourmets, balancing schnitzel, Italian mussels, Pljekavica (read: Bosnian hamburgers) and West African cous cous on arms made tremorous by highoctane Vietnamese coffee.

Tasters were treated to food and drink from 20 local vendors, music from DJ Record Selector and jazz combo Au Privave, and a performance from the Grover Cleveland High School step team, as well as a raffle and silent auction boasting, among other things, a basketball signed by the New York Knicks on the night they clenched the division title. Proceeds went to support the YMCA’s Strong Kids Campaign, according to LaKeisha Harris, the Ridgewood Y’s executive director.

Peter Arbeeny, who lives in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, said he and his wife were visiting the neighborhood for dinner when they happened by the event.

Wanting to support the Y, they deferred their dinner plans and bought tickets to Taste of Ridgewood, he said.

“We were going to go to Caribe Star on Myrtle, instead we got half of Myrtle here,” he said. “It was a great variety-they had every type of ethnic food.

The first-ever event took months to plan.

Ambre Abraham is an administrative assistant for the Y who helped organize the event. She said she spent 3 months reaching out to more than 65 area restaurants while planning Taste of Ridgewood.

Abraham said not all of the restaurants had enough staff to participate and run their regular dinner service. She said she hoped the smaller eateries that did make it would receive a warm welcome from tasters.

“I’m rooting for the small guys,” Abraham said, adding plugs for Bosna Express and Abidjan-two restaurants she said made a sacrifice to be there.

Harris said she was initially worried whether anyone would show up. “I’m blown away by the last month of people calling and RSVPing,” she said.

For Harris, the event was a learning experience.

“It was important for us to really showcase the building, so we had to use all three floors,” she said.

1) Ken Bethge of Zum Stammtisch talks schnitzel with a taster. 2) Keith Camant, head chef at Avenue Bar and Grill slices up prime rib while owner Vytis Kezys doles out buffalo wings. 3) Diners were were entertained by jazz combo Au Privave. 4) The Ridgewood Y presented awards to community leaders. Pictured (from left) are Chris Smith (accepting the award for Ridgewood Savings Bank President/CEO Peter Boger); LaKeisha Harris, the Ridgewood Y’s executive director; Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan; and Community Board 5 Chair Vincent Arcuri, Jr. 5) Mica Berg (left) and Dave May (second from left) dish up organic beef and veggie burgers for Bare Burger. 6) More than 100 people gathered for Taste of Ridgewood. 7) The Grover Cleveland High School Step Team performs. 8) Pat Merts celebrates winning the cash raffle while organizer Olivia Tousius draws the next winning ticket. 9) Christina Natasi of Rudy’s Pastry Shop hands out a cupcake and talks about the shop’s new cafe and gluten-free desserts. 10) Crystal Williams, Ridgewood resident and owner of Norma’s, shows off her ham and cheddar biscuits. 11) Domingo Aguilar, a cook at Bosna Express, chats about Pljekavica, a Bosnian hamburger. 12) Shea Hsu from Bunker Vietnamese holds up a freshwrapped summer roll.

That meant some restaurants didn’t have the same level of visibility as others, according to Harris. She said she wants to improve on that in years to come.

Neighborhood newcomers set up side-by-side with more entrenched establishments, and based on responses from attendees, visibility wasn’t much of an issue.

In the lower level, residents chatted with Crystal Williams, owner of Norma’s Cafe, over garden cakes and iced coffee. The cafe opened 10 months ago, and Williams, who is also a resident, said she feels welcomed in the neighborhood.

Another vendor revamping the coffee-and-donuts scene is Rudy’s Pastry Shop. The shop now features a cafe and an expanded menu that includes gluten-free options, according to pastry chef Christina Nastasi. She said the new goodies started flying off shelves when locals caught news of a gluten-free option.

On the other end of the spectrum (and the Y’s floor plan) were Myrtle Avenue’s Nepalese-Indian Restaurant-heralded by local food bloggers as a leader in Ridgewood restaurant trend dubbed the “Himalayan Invasion”-and Bunker Vietnamese, the 2-monthold spot that brings Indochinese cuisine to Metropolitan Avenue.

Bunker owner Roy Zapata talked shop with attendees while Shea Hsu, who works at Bunker, doled out fresh summer rolls and coconut tapioca pudding.

Neither Norma’s nor the far-east food were featured in the event’s main room, but many attendees found them buzzworthy.

Alfred Tam, who lives in Ridgewood, said his favorite fare was the Vietnamese coffee from Bunker.

“I’m still drinking it. This is my second cup,” he said. “[The event] was a fabulous effort to involve Ridgewood businesses.”

The night was about more than sampling local restaurants. An award ceremony honored community leaders, and presentations from students involved with the Y showcased the next generation’s promise.

Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, Community Board 5 Chair Vincent Arcuri and Peter Boger, president and CEO of the Ridgewood Savings Bank, were honored for their contributions to the community, though Boger was not able to make it for the ceremony.

“We in Ridgewood don’t always toot our own horn, and yet we have so much to be proud of as a community,” Nolan said.

She boasted the range of cultures represented at Taste of Ridgewood, citing the influx of Indian restaurants in the neighborhood.

“Who thought we would have that-or a Vietnamese restaurant- when I was growing up in Ridgewood 30 and 40 years ago,” she said. “We are on the cutting edge of communities in New York City.”

Arcuri commended residents for their strong sense of civic involvement.

“Just look around at who’s standing next to you. It’s a Kiwanian; it’s a civic association member; it’s the doctors from the hospital-they’re fantastic people,” he said.

The task at hand, he said, is getting the youth as involved and invested in the community as the old guard is.

Kennedy Renaud-Williams, a sophomore at Medgar Evers College Preparatory School, told the crowd about how the Y has changed her life. After losing her mother to heart disease at the age of 13, Renaud-Williams began coming to the Dodge Y in brooklyn with her aunt.

“The Y became a place that I went when I needed a place to get away and time to think,” she said.

Renaud-Williams said heart disease runs in her family, and before coming to the Y, she was considered morbidly obese. Having a community and a place to exercise helped Renaud-Williams change her lifestyle and achieve a healthy weight, she said.

Renaud-Williams told the crowd her mother had asked her to start going to the Y shortly before passing away.

“This wold be my tribute to her,” she said.

As the evening wore on, attendees gathered to hear the results of raffles and a silent auction that benefited the YMCA’s Strong Kids Campaign, which helps youth access exercise programs and health education regardless of financial means, according to Anthony Emmanuel, a database manager for the YMCA of Greater New York.

Pat Merts won the cash raffle. After she picked up her prize, she shuffled through the crowd, wad of winnings in hand, singing “happy birthday to me.” She turned 65 that day.

Paulina Cabello made the winning bid on the signed Knicks ball. Ironically, she’s not into basketball, but her husband is a huge Knicks fan, she said, adding that she plans to give him the ball for their upcoming wedding anniversary.

“You’re sitting on a gold mine if [the Knicks] win the championship,” one man joked.

As the night wound down, a group of volunteers posed for a photo, congratulating one another on a successful night. Another organizer ran up to the crowd: “We can eat now!” she said, illiciting a chorus of cheers.

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