The Aesthete

Harlem Nights (and Days)

From neo-soul food and beefed-up pub fare to some of Manhattan's surprisingly tastiest sushi and Italian menus, Harlem chefs are proving that kitchen creativity now begins where Central Park comes to an end

by David Kaufman

Even the most ardent Harlem-phile could be forgiven for thinking that the district's upscale dining arena begins and ends with the restaurant Red Rooster. But as ambitious epicurean newcomers across Upper Manhattan continue to prove, there's more to Harlem's cuisine scene than Marcus Samuelsson's perfectly fried Yard Bird and flavorful black-eyed peas.

The epicenter of Harlem's newfound foodie movement has to be Frederick Douglass Boulevard (FDB) — the increasingly condo-lined thoroughfare that rises north from Central Park West. Set along Harlem's western flank close to Columbia University and near Morningside Park, FDB now buzzes with artisanal bakeries, organic butchers and even yoga studios. Stroll its sidewalks on a warm summer night and FDB's polyglot, poly-sexual, truly multi-culti masses suggest a utopian Manhattan sadly missing from most of the island.

FDB's polyglot, poly-sexual, truly multi-culti masses suggest a utopian Manhattan sadly missing from most of the island.

As numerous new real estate developments confirm, this mix — along with still relatively affordable rents — have made FDB one of New York's most desirable neighborhoods. How desirable? Well, the top real estate destination city-wide in 2010, according to the real estate blog, Curbed. Despite the wide-ranging newcomers, the 'hood that produced everyone from James Baldwin to Lena Horne still remains a bastion of Blackness — even as its food culture increasingly spans every corner of the globe.

"Food has always been hugely important to Harlem culture, but now the competitive bar has been raised in terms of design, menu, execution and service," says Nikoa Evans-Hendricks, executive director of Harlem Park to Park, the neighborhood non-profit working to brand Harlem's lifestyle offerings.

The boom along FDB began back in 2008 — spurred both by early condo arrivals and a unique twist in Harlem's unique zoning laws; its long-standing “Blue Laws" restrict liquor licenses from venues operating within 200 feet of churches or schools. With some 400 houses of worship and educational facilities across the neighborhood, opening viable and sustainable businesses has clearly been challenging in Harlem. "But the lack of churches on FDB has made it an ideal corridor for restaurant and bar development," says Evans-Hendricks.

That development began about five years ago with the opening of Harlem pioneers such as 67 Orange Street and The 5 and Diamond. Both are still going strong — the former is an after-hours speakeasy-styled lounge, while the latter is an Iberian-inspired restaurant with clear soul food spice. Dark and handsome with a cozy banquette and U-shaped bar, 67 Orange Street's smartly dressed bartenders serve handcrafted cocktails rich with rum, gin and vodka and flavored with muddled grapes or freshly crushed cilantro. With its 4 a.m. closing time and new-wave-meets-soul soundtrack, the lounge louchely evokes Harlem's new vibe and helped pave the way for continued development.

"The success of places like 67 Orange Street ultimately inspired later arrivals like The Red Rooster and Harlem Tavern," says owner Karl-Franz Williams. "Restaurateurs now believe that avant-garde concepts — “downtown" concepts — can now work in Harlem."

And those concepts are now as varied as Harlem itself. There's Lido on FDB and 117th Street, which specializes in northern Italian cuisine, along with thin-crust experts Bad Horse Pizza a short stroll away. Closer to Central Park is Melba's, a near iconic nouvelle soul food eatery which doubles as a late night jazz and blues lounge throughout the week. In between is Levain Bakery, whose outposts on the genteel Upper West Side and haute Hamptons — not to mention a serious endorsement from Oprah — have made their oversized cookies and pillow-soft brioche a favorite of Harlem's new yummy-mummy set. 

"Food has always been hugely important to Harlem culture, but now the competitive bar has been raised in terms of design, menu, execution and service." Newer still is The Harlem Tavern, which sits on a prime slice of real estate at the corner of FDB and 116th Street and includes a live Sunday jazz brunch, hearty gastro-pub menu and massive outdoor dining patio with Manhattan's most colorful people watching. And newcomer Jado Sushi, with chefs who trained at Sushi Samba and Sushi Yasuda and whose owner, Nobu Otsu, operates one of Harlem's top wine shops. Otsu personally designed much of Jado's ultra-contemporary decor — think floral-patterned wallpaper and crocodile skin-styled bathroom tiles — as well as curated its inventive wine and cocktail list.

With the late-fall arrival of the brasserie-styled Maison Harlem on nearby St. Nicholas Boulevard and 127th Street, Harlem's restaurant row is now reaching beyond FDB and even past 125th Street, the district's historic commercial core. Indeed, Evans-Hendricks suggests that Harlem's next great culinary corridor will actually evolve away from FDB to the neighborhoods to the north and east. Ultimately, Harlem-watchers say, the area could easily stand out as one of Manhattan’s most compelling all-hours locations. "Northern Lenox Avenue is now emerging as a destination for nightlife and entertainment, with Nobu co-owner Ritchie Notar opening Notar Jazz Lounge in the former Lenox Lounge space,” says Evans-Hendricks. “This will create an entertainment/nightlife corridor where people can easily walk from one establishment to the next.”

Foodie Favorites

Bier International
2099 Frederick Douglass Blvd. (at 113th St.); 212-280-0944; bierinternational.com

Like the rest of New York, Harlem is also taking part in the “beer garden” craze with the opening of Bier International. The clean-lined, contemporary-design space pours 10 European drafts and serves over a dozen brews by the bottle. The list is heavy on Belgian beers, but also includes British classics like Fuller’s London Pride and even a few local Harlem-made brands such as Sugar Hill Golden Ale and Kenya’s Tusker. Despite its booze-focused menu, Bier International also delivers hearty, well-priced gastropub-fare such as burgers, empanadas and Berlin-styled currywurst.

 
Harlem Food Bar
2100 Frederick Douglass Blvd. (between 113th and 114th Sts.); 212-222-9570; hfbnyc.com

When it opened six months ago, the Harlem Food Bar brought a much-needed dose of "Downtown-styled/new-American” dining to the hungry Uptown masses. Fronted by an industrial-styled facade and decorated with abstract, graffiti-styled wall murals, the restaurant is among Harlem’s most demographically diverse and welcoming — unsurprising with owners from Chelsea. The food is upscale bistro with an artisanal and seasonal twist. The hefty hamburger features Pat LaFrieda beef — de rigeur below 23rd Street, but new to most of northern Manhattan. It's delivered luxed-up on a brioche bun and paired with thick polenta fries that far out-taste their more typical potato-based cousins. 

 
Lido Harlem
2168 Frederick Douglass Blvd. (at 117th St.); 646-490-8575; lidoharlem.com

Light and airy with its cool blue-and-white design scheme, Lido is a dose of its namesake Venetian islands in the heart of Harlem. Overseen by veteran chef Stephen Putnam (who used to toil behind stoves at both The Park Avenue and River cafés) Lido focuses on Northern Italian specialties, with little of the "red sauce" typically served at Italian joints. In its place, there are heartier, creamier dishes such as chicken cacciatore with mascarpone polenta, gnocchi with truffle butter, or a light plate of tuna simply grilled with broccoli rabe and sweet potato purée. Most Lido menus are seasonally themed  — recent dishes included orchiette with oven-roasted tomatoes and basil pesto along with grilled salmon paired with celery root mash. Arrive for a lazy brunch — an all-afternoon affair with entrees such as the Lido BLT or white polenta with mushroom ragu and all-you-can-drink mimosas.

 
The 5 and Diamond
2072 Frederick Douglass Blvd. (between 112th and 113th Sts.); 917-860-4444; 5anddiamondrestaurant.com

The 5 and Diamond helped usher in Harlem’s culinary renaissance when it opened just north of Central Park two years ago. Cozy and compact, the restaurant’s fuss-free interiors — plate-glass windows, exposed brick walls, restored wooden floors crafted from salvaged stable beams — belie chef David Martinez’s ambitious cuisine. Born in Spain and raised in New Jersey, Martinez trained in both his homeland and celebrated New York kitchens such as Bouley and Aureole, and his menu reflects this. Tapas-styled small plates skew both Iberian — manchego-topped field greens, house-cured sardines, jamon croquettas — and local, such as updated uptown classics like Mac and Cheese made with truffles or Gruyere. Brunch, however, is where The 5 and Diamond’s casual charm shines brightest — an all-afternoon event beginning with bourbon cocktails and buttery biscuits followed by crisp fried chicken with waffles or shrimp and grits capped with a fried egg. Stick around for the Sunday Night Supper Club with live opera singers and a seasonal four-course tasting menu.

 
Harlem Tavern
2153 Frederick Douglass Blvd. (at 116th St.); 212-866-4500; harlemtavern.com

Sprawling more than 7,000 square feet with a prime corner location, the 350-seat Tavern serves 80 different beers from the U.S., Europe and even Harlem itself. Much like at their European counterparts, Tavern diners crowd communal wooden tables shaded by umbrellas and heaving with pitchers of stouts, ales, ciders and lagers. Dublin-born chef Darren Pettigrew’s menu is equally global and expansive — hefty plates of cured charcuterie, Mediterranean-styled flat-breads and smoky mozzarella and ricotta fritters make for euro-styled starters. Main courses like bourbon-braised short-ribs and an organic chicken pot-pie roasted in a skillet feel far more down-home. Come Sunday, a live jazz band descends upon the restaurant during brunch-time.