They say you can choose your friends but you can't choose your family. I'm fortunate, then, to have Ananda, Rehana and Ari Ellis as cousins. They're fascinating people. Ananda ("eternal bliss" in Sanskrit) and Rehana ("spicy delight" in Persian) are identical twins who model, act and sing professionally, occasionally as backup for Cyndi Lauper. Their brother, Ari, who manages the family's real estate business, collects wine and sails in his free time; he loves Indian food so much that he named his boat Chutney. Serious equestrians, all three played polo on a team with their dad, and the whole family once took a riding trip through the Sahara Desert. Now my cousins have joined forces for an even more ambitious venture: the opening of a terrific wine bar, Ara, in Manhattan's Meatpacking District.
Like the Ellis siblings—lifelong New Yorkers whose mother is from the south Indian state of Goa, a former Portuguese colony, and whose father is an American of Russian and Romanian descent—Ara fuses East and West, old-world and modern styles. A Turkish rug at the Ellis family home inspired Ara's palate of ochre, red, tobacco and orange; indeed, the 35-seat space feels like a living room. Indian and Persian silk pillows contrast with a modular Plexiglas and wood bar lit from within.
The wine and food at Ara play with the fusion concept too. "Growing up, we were addicted to fiery curries and dals, and we've always paired Indian food with wine," Ari explains. "Some wines at Ara remind us of dinner with the family. They almost taste like happiness." The Ellises developed their list with advice from Joshua Wesson, cofounder of the innovative Best Cellars wine shops, known for value bottlings. "Well-balanced, fruity wines that are modestly rather than heroically alcoholic make peace with the spiciness of Indian food," Wesson says. "And sparkling wines go particularly well with Indian food since the acidity cuts the saltiness and spiciness."
Running a wine bar hasn't stopped the Ellises from doing what they love most: throwing parties. Recently, they invited friends over for cocktails at their parents' Manhattan apartment, decorated with portraits of their Goan relatives painted by great-grandfather Antonio Xavier Trindade and grandaunt Angela Trindade. Their friend Jehangir Mehta, the pastry chef at the elegant year-old uptown restaurant Aix and an Ara consultant, prepared tasty Indian hors d'oeuvres, including flaky potato samosas, crisp shrimp fritters flavored with garlic and cilantro, spicy ground lamb nan pizzas and tangy chickpea chat (a savory snack made with yogurt and flavorings such as onion, coriander and green chiles).
Ari mixed the cocktails—including a tart, fruity Cosmopolitan made from blood orange vodka and cranberry-raspberry juice—and also chose the wines: a lemony 2001 Lusco Albariño from Rías Baixas, Spain, a 2001 Castle Rock Pinot Noir from Sonoma (which Ari describes as a "nice, young, friendly red") and a sparkling 1997 Gruet Grand Reserve from Albuquerque, which, as Wesson predicted, was great with everything.
"We can't help that it shows in everything we do," Ananda says, referring to the Ellises' East-West fusions. As this party proves, there's no reason to resist.