Harlem’s culinary renaissance draws a lot of ink these days. The Cecil is the latest Exhibit “A”. There’ll be another; always is.
If we’re honest, these Harlem spots haven’t yet earned a grade on the Manhattan curve. If you put the Red Rooster in midtown, would it have won Sam Sifton’s paroxysms of joy? I don’t think so.
We loved our New Year’s Eve dinner at Mountain Bird. It was very good, no denying it. But part of the joy was finding a $59 six-course French tasting menu in Harlem. Put it somewhere else, and it wouldn’t seem as remarkable. It wouldn’t be $59 either.
So now we come to The Cecil, named for a hotel that burned down in the 1970s. The upper floors at the current site are now an SRO, so this isn’t the most upscale spot, but you’re at 118th Street, only eight blocks north of Central Park’s upper edge, just east of Columbia, and within walking distance of the Upper West Side’s expanding northern boundary.
Richard Parsons, the former Time–Warner and Citigroup chairman, bankrolled a glitzy build-out, which attracts a multi-cultural crowd of locals and curiosity-seekers. There’s a comfortable, bustling bar area and a large dining room, which was doing solid business on a Saturday evening but was not full. The clientele ranged from couples on dates and party-seekers, to families with small children. The sound track was noticeable but not excessively loud.
Next door, Minton’s Jazz Club has been reborn, likewise at Parsons’ expense. It serves a more expensive “Southern revival” menu (entrées averaging in the mid-$30s), with live music at every seating.
Alexander Smalls is the executive chef for both projects. At the Cecil, he serves the cuisine of the “African Diaspora,” which permits him to go everywhere—which he does. A starter of “Afro / Asian / American Oxtail Dumplings” that you eat with chopsticks is the undercard for Guinea Hen, breaded and deep-fried with a cinnamon crust.
If they blew the opening budget, it was probably on pottery. Every coarse is served in, or on, heavy glazed pieces, many with distinctive patterns as if a brush dipped in dark paint had been shaken above the plate as it dried in the kiln. What they spent on plates they saved on wine glasses, which are stemless.
The menu is mid-priced by downtown standards, but expensive for Harlem, with starters in the mid-teens and most entrées in the mid-$20s. But after cocktails ($14 each) and a fairly inexpensive South African wine (2009 uQuamata, $40), the bill is $185 (without tip) before you know it.
Both starters were served with chopsticks. The aforementioned Oxtail dumplings ($14; above right) were terrific. We were less fond of Ginger Squid ($14; above left), deep fried in what seemed like an overly gloppy tempura batter.
But both entrées were hits, a spectacular Cinnamon Scented Guinea Hen ($27; above left) and a fall-off-the-bone Lamb Shank ($36; above right) with coconut grits, heirloom carrots, and purple sweet potato.
We weren’t quite ready to be on our way, so we ordered the Sticky Bun with vanilla ice cream ($10; left), which would put Cinnabon out of business if it were served at breakfast.
Service was a bit frayed at the edges. So were the menus, which are obviously not re-printed very often, and after a few months in business are starting to wear out. The two-page wine list is not updated either: our first choice was not available.
Wendy reminded me that, when she was going up, Brooklyn Jews never went to Harlem. It just wasn’t done. The neighborhood has changed. Even after dark, the three-block walk felt totally safe. After dinner, we easily hailed a cab (and it wasn’t an anomaly: I saw many more).
We’d happily return.
The Cecil (210 W. 118th Street at St. Nicholas Avenue, Harlem)
Food: Cuisine of the African Diaspora, loosely interpreted
Service: Not bad, but a bit frayed at the edges
Ambiance: A glitzy build-out that creates a new Harlem authenticity