Note: This is a review under chef David Santos, who left the restaurant in August 2010.
What do Tribeca, the East Village, and the Lower East Side have in common? They’re all neighborhoods that, not so long ago, were considered absurd locations for destination dining. Today, no one thinks twice about it.
Is it Harlem’s turn? That’s the bet Marcus Samuelsson is making, as he prepares to open the Red Rooster at the corner of 125th Street and Lenox Avenue. And that’s the bet the owners of 5 & Diamond have made at 112th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard.
The geographical barrier is more psychological than real. 5 & Diamond is just a few blocks from subway stations at 110th Street on the B, C, 2, and 3 lines. From many midtown locations, you can actually get there faster than you can get to the East Village or the Lower East Side. It just seems far away.
Without the benefit of a celebrity name like Samuelsson, the owners of 5 & Diamond decided to rent a name. Serial job-hopper Ryan Skeen was brought in to open the place, and promptly made a mess of things, as only he can. It wasn’t long before Skeen had a foot out the door. By the time the Village Voice filed its rave review, critic Sarah DiGregorio was giving Skeen credit for dishes he no longer had anything to do with.
The permanent chef is David Santos, who doesn’t bring Skeen’s press clippings, but has an impressive resume and plans to stick around. With the review cycle basically over, 5 & Diamond will need to win destination diners via word-of-mouth.
The restaurant occupies a pretty storefront; the build-out is handsome, and would fit in without apology anywhere downtown. For a place still fighting for attention, it could use a sign, and frankly a website.
Santos’s eclectic American menu is sensibly edited, with just seven appetizers ($10–16) and seven entrées ($22–32). There’s a quintet of desserts ($5). A five-course tasting menu is only $50, and as three standard courses will set you back at least $40, this is the way to go.
Our tasting menu showed great promise, but there were also some missteps. One of these was a raw Long Island Fluke with pickled rhubarb, sea beans, and chili oil. The first three ingredients were too delicate to withstand the fourth. The taste of chili oil overwhelmed the dish. (In the photo, you can see a pool of it, underneath the fish.)
But we loved seared scallops with apricot gazpacho, spring onions, and lovage (above left), as well as the grilled Portuguese Sepia with piquillo pepper puree, sherry shallots, and olives (above right). In both of these dishes, the ingredients were in the right balance.
The chef sent out an extra item not on the tasting menu, a Keepsake Farms Hen Egg (above left) with chorizo, roasted garlic, and potato foam. Like all such egg dishes, you puncture the yolk, and then have a gooey delight as all of the ingredients mix together. This was the highlight of the evening—and curiously, the least expensive savory course on the regular menu, at $10. If you order à la carte, this is perfect for sharing, as it is a very rich dish.
According to Santos, Idaho Brook Trout (above right) is one of the few Ryan Skeen contributions still on the menu. It was conceptually simpler than most of the other items we were served, but beautifully cooked.
We weren’t at all fond of the “Philly Cheese Steak” (above left). The quotes signal that it’s a deconstructed dish, with clothbound cheddar, crisp shallots, and red pepper foam on a bed of bruschetta. In our view, when you are serving 14-day aged sirloin, there shouldn’t be so many side-kicks on the plate. In addition, the bruschetta became soggy, and the fried shallots left a bitter after-taste.
We had no complaint at all with warm Brioche Doughnuts (above right). Along with the tomato rosemary focaccia served at the beginning of the meal, they showed off a kitchen with strong baking skills.
We eschewed the offered wine pairing ($35pp) in favor of a 2006 Château du Cèdre Cahors ($48). In general, the wine list struck us as slightly too expensive for the area.
While we were there, we saw at least eight people outside look at the menu posted in the window, and keep on walking. Santos needs to find ways to get them in the door, given that the restaurant was only half full on a Saturday evening.
A $5 menu offered weeknights from 5:30–7:00 is a start. We suspect that the neighborhood needs a few approachable dishes to balance the foams and the high-end French technique.
A burger ($13) is buried under a list of side dishes. We asked Santos why it wasn’t more prominent. He said that he doesn’t want people to think of 5 & Diamond as a “burger place.” But with three-star restaurants serving $26 burgers nowadays, we don’t think there’s much danger of that.
Service was very good, for the most part—certainly in line with the quality of the food Santos aspires to serve. As we know him from a food board, we are not going to rate the restaurant with “stars.” We’ll only say that it shows every promise of becoming the destination restaurant that Harlem should have.
5 & Diamond (2072 Frederick Douglass Blvd. at 112th Street, Harlem)