by gary walther | January 22, 2014 | Food & Drink
Spices used in various dishes at The Cecil
“I have always contended that the two things black and white people don’t do together is eat and pray,” says restaurateur Alexander Smalls in his soothing tenor. (In a former life, he sang with the Houston Grand Opera.) At The Cecil, the 150-seat Harlem restaurant that he and Richard Parsons—former chairman of Citigroup and chairman and CEO of Time Warner, and currently head of the Jazz Foundation of America—launched in September, Smalls is well on his way to whittling that list down to one. In 35 years of dining out in Manhattan, I’ve never seen such a diverse crowd. “It’s not the first time I’ve heard that,” Smalls tells me buoyantly when I relate this.
But this is also how things used to be in Harlem. “Back in the day—I have old photographs—blacks and whites would come up here,” says Parsons, who was instrumental in the revival of Harlem. As head of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone in the mid-’90s, he helped bring back the Apollo, re-establish 125th Street as the neighborhood’s commercial aorta, and got the area to what he calls “the tipping point,” which he says was Marcus Samuelsson’s founding of the Red Rooster. “Since then, it’s been a jailbreak.”
The restaurant’s exterior at 118th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue
For Parsons, The Cecil and its next-door jazz supper-club companion, Minton’s, are the fulfillment of a long-held dream. When he was 18, Parsons took his prom date to Hickory House, a Harlem jazz club that he says made him feel like a grown-up for the first time. Since then, he’s wanted to own some kind of supper club up here. He describes his role in the combined project as “the M&M guy—money and music.” He laughs when I say that half of the job sounds like fun.
For Smalls, who was known for Southern regional cooking at Cafe Beulah (where he and Parsons met), The Cecil is a chance to create a menu that highlights the role Africa has played in American cuisine. “No other continent has changed the cooking conversation the way Africa did through slavery,” says Smalls, meaning that slaves brought culinary traditions that took root in numerous ways.
Spicy crispy ginger squid
That’s not to say the menu is a culinary history lesson. Smalls wears his learning lightly and roams widely, drawing from India and Trinidad (grilled vegetable roti platter—with West African spicy jollof rice), Jamaica (citrus jerk wild bass), and Portugal and its former colonies Mozambique, Angola, and Brazil (in the feijoada, a rich black-bean and meat stew, here done with oxtail). He isn’t averse to whimsical fusion—mini hot dogs come topped with veal in yassa, the spicy marinade from Senegal, and other condiments—or plain old crowd-pleasing fusion, as in the spicy crispy ginger squid and the creamy-and-crispy okra fries.
If there’s one dish that’s a must-order, it’s the guinea hen (Parsons’s favorite). “It’s goooorgeous,” says Smalls, making the vowels roll like ball bearings. Chef de cuisine Joseph “J.J.” Johnson says that they had considered doing fried chicken, “but I refused. Everybody does it.” The hen, from D’Artagnan, is brined in cinnamon and salt for two days and then flash-fried for 12 minutes. The result is a skin that’s pins-and-needles spicy and flesh that melts in your mouth.
Chef de cuisine Joseph “J.J.” Johnson
When Smalls found the space, which is on the ground floor of the Cecil Hotel, it had been abandoned since 1974. “It was a shooting gallery,” says Parsons. The décor hits an African note here and there, notably in the lights, which resemble African baskets, but the space is modern jazzy, a low-key hover between lounge and restaurant.
The Cecil has become a celebrity hot spot. Friends of Caroline Kennedy threw a going-away party for her when she was announced as the new ambassador to Japan. “Oprah Winfrey just walked in one night,” Smalls says. The Sunday night after I was there, Charlie Rose and Amanda Burden turned up. Mariah Carey, Harry Belafonte, and Carole King have been in.
But I thought it was more telling that The Cecil, according to Parsons, has made a commitment to hire 70 percent of the employees from the community and give them the necessary training, and that The Cecil and Minton’s provide the residents of the Cecil Hotel, which is still an SRO, free meals. They’re planning a regular meal program for this year, too. It’s part of Parsons’s vision that “a neighborhood can undergo gentrification and you don’t have to move everyone out.” 206 W. 118th St., 212-866-1262
photography by evan sung