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The Gullah jumbo shrimp burger with house-made kimchee and scallion served in Chinese-style buns

Harlem, South

by Gael Greene | Photography by Noah Fecks | Manhattan magazine | October 30, 2013

Brooklyn seems redundant to me, and I’m bored with claustrophobia on the Lower East Side. Midtown is about to explode with enterprising eats. That’s exciting. But right now my friends and I are heading to Harlem, now in its latest renaissance. I’ll expect to be sporting an armload of rhinestones at media mogul Richard Parsons’ revival of the 1930s-era Minton’s jazz club soon. I always suspected the Time Warner CEO had a brilliant future after media. Beyond even Citibank’s board, I mean.

But on this October evening, Minton’s is still dark and four of us are discovering The Cecil, a sprawling annex next door, with its glowing green neon sign and a fullback in a business suit at the door to wave us in. At the podium, I’m addressed as “milady.” A first for me.

Proprietors Parsons and wife Laura Bush have left partner Alexander Smalls to create an “Afro-Asian-American brasserie, of the African diaspora.” And that’s just what it is. Delicate and luscious Afro-Asian-American oxtail dumplings arrive under a taro-root-chip sail. West African beef suya with rum-soaked apricots under a layer of grilled plantain cakes is definitely “interesting.” But we’re wild about the $7 side of thrillingly crisp fried okra and the juicy poussin Yassa with curry-coconut sticky rice and bourbon-soaked dried fruit. Its crunchy long beans would wrap Scarlett Johansson’s waist. The Gullah jumbo shrimp burger—chopped and fried and tucked with house-made kimchee into Chinese-style white buns—is mighty fine, too. My Blood and Fire rum cocktail with sorrel is long and blush pink, and would make me happy if I weren’t already.

It’s unstylishly early, and the bar, with its borrowing of artist Gustav Klimt’s entwined lovers on the back wall, is just getting hot. From our corner, with its big windows on St. Nicholas, the spottily-decorated dining room looks like a vast gym where someone has scattered tables and chairs—it could use a few big booths and rounds. But it already has that winning mix of neighborhood and downtown, stylish hipsters, checkerboard couples, local royalty and everyday folks—OKCupid dates, for all I know—plus the usual first-nighters
like us.

That large man with the mellifluous voice making the rounds is Smalls. He was an opera singer briefly, before he opened Café Beulah to show off what he calls “Southern-revival cooking,” and later Sweet Ophelia’s, The Showbox Café and a catering business. “Don’t even think soul food,” he says. He’ll have none of it. This is Lowcountry cooking. He says he and Parsons spent five years searching Harlem for the right place.

Back again a week later, I realize the room looks better from the rear. “What does Yassa mean?” one of my companions asks warily.

“I haven’t a clue,” I admit, “but you’ll love the poussin.” His wife, even with help from the rest of us, barely makes a dent in the bourbon praline ham—a plate to share, with marvelous cinnamon yam puree.

The only ribs on this menu are hidden under the heading Rice & Vegetable Wok Bar. You’re asked to choose your rice—steamed or fried—plus a protein and a sauce.

“How hot is piri piri sauce?” I ask. On a scale of one to 10, it’s a five or six, the waiter says. The ribs, slathered with the torrid sauce, ride in on top of the brown rice bowl and are gone in a flash as each of us grabs one and bites into the firm, smoky meat. My pals aren’t pepper heads like me, but they seem to love the after-kick. In fact, the excellent fried squid is feverish, and that disappears quickly, too.

Did I overlook the macaroni and cheese casserole with peppered ham and caramelized shallots? Of course not. It’s massive, for two or more to share, even eight. I did wish it were browner and crustier, but I kept eating it anyway.

Not everything is that thrilling. To pay $8 for the bread basket—a few folded rotis, two ordinary rolls and a trio of sauces—is outrageous. A “duo of deviled duck eggs” looked like one chicken egg cut in half to me. Perfectly acceptable beet salad with spiced yogurt is nothing special. The cinnamon-brined fried guinea hen with charred okra and Asian red beans may be the house’s signature, but it was dried out and weary that first night. Perhaps chef JJ Johnson’s kitchen hadn’t yet found its mojo.

Inevitably, we can barely entertain the idea of dessert. But in my crowd, we rally. The house’s whiskey sticky bun is shockingly small. It’s a joke for four to share, but we did. The date apricot cake also came in small finger cuts, with a tiny oval of coconut sorbet and a dribble of
salty caramel.

We shared that, too. Survival required it.

The Cecil
206 W. 118th St. at St. Nicholas Avenue, 212.866.1262.
Lunch and dinner, Mon.-Fri.: 11am-10pm; Sat.: 11am-11pm; brunch and dinner: Sun.: 11am–10pm