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At first glance, it’s a wonder the newly opened Ze CAFE gets any business at all. Not only is the French bistro tucked away on a sleepy side street in Manhattan’s East 50s, right near the East River, but there isn’t even a noticeable sign outside to attract the attention of passersby.
But Ze Café is doing just fine. The day it opened, the small eatery boasted 117 customers and it continues to attract a steady flow of diners for brunch, lunch and dinner.
This might have something to do with the fact that the brains behind the operation is Zezé, the mono-monikered florist who has built up a dedicated clientele during his nearly three decades in business. And those same die-hard fans of his arrangements, many of whom are nearby residents of River House and Sutton Place, are now showing their support for his edible fare.
“I bring the crowd with me,” admits the Brazilian-born Zezé, who counts Valentino and Deeda Blair among his cafe customers. He and his wife and business partner, Peggy O’Dea, still maintain his flower shop just around the corner from the restaurant. On a snowy winter’s day, it is filled with phlox, peonies, dusty-colored roses and the usual holiday trappings of tiny pine trees and wreaths, not to mention beautiful vases, porcelain flowers on iron stalks in terra-cotta pots, statuary and a huge stag.
It may seem an odd jump from flowers to flour, but Zezé has toyed with the idea of opening a restaurant for decades. “Owning a flower shop and a restaurant — it’s the same thing,” he says of his new hyphenate status. “Both are a labor of love.”
When he moved his floral business to a larger space two years ago, the old location proved the perfect opportunity for his new cafe. It also boosted the neighborhood, long starved for quality eateries, despite its wealthy residents. “We had nothing to eat here,” he says.
Zezé solved that problem by tapping husband-and-wife duo Roberto and Monica Bellissimo, both formerly of Le Cirque, to man the kitchen at his latest project. Roberto created a comprehensive menu that includes Franco-American standbys like quiche with arugula salad, coq au Riesling, short ribs and duck confit. “It’s very casual and very European,” explains the chef, whose other half whips up French pastries and made-to-order pies at an off-site location in Brooklyn.
Indeed, there is little about Ze Café, including the understated decor, to remind customers of its former identity. “Everyone says to put up more flowers,” says Zezé. “But it’s a recession.”
398 East 52nd Street; 212.758.1944