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FORKPLAY April 1, 2014

Where Does Urban Start? The Cecil. Gato. Larder Inspiration. The River Café. Foodie Collection.


Dear Friends and Family,

       Many of my friends seem to get a special high eating in Harlem. Even if the food is not remarkably  stellar, they feel good surrounded by the urban mix of black and white. It's New York, after all. Marcus Samuelsson's Red Rooster remains red hot. Richard Parsons' Minton's with Alexander Smalls' low country nostalgia gets a lively mix on weekends. But this homey chiaroscuro is not played out in midtown. Indeed, I see fewer blacks in restaurants below 96th Street now than I once did. Well, you may see them at business lunches, but less so at dinner.

       I know the current usage is African-American and I guess I'm dating myself. But it was me, yes, who got downtown trekking to Sylvia's in Harlem in March  1979. That's when two very white, preppy-looking guys introduced me to the fabulous breakfasts and sweet Coke-doused ribs at Sylvia Woods' tiny luncheonette on Lenox Avenue just north of 126th Street. Click here to read "Harlem on My Mind," my celebration of Sylvia's loving embrace, her grits and biscuits.That my excitement appeared in the spotlight of New York certainly helped.

       It was not one of these carefree eras when whites played in jazz clubs that far uptown. "Are we really  going to tell our readers to go to Harlem?" Editor Ed Kosner had his doubts.

       I assured him whites would find a warm welcome. "We'll tell readers to jump in a cab, wait for the meter to drop, and then say Harlem." After seven years in the same cramped luncheonette, Herbert and Sylvia Woods were launched on building their soul food empire.

       Not everyone is happy with the current Harlem Renaissance. Longtime Harlemites may find themselves priced out by gentrification. But when I asked restaurateurs why we don't see many blacks in a vast chunk of Manhattan, they pointed to exactly that, the new gentrified Harlem. "It's not compelling to come downtown because they have good restaurants now in Harlem and Brooklyn where they live," Jerry Kretchmer said.

       "We do see a mix at ABC Kitchen," Phil Suarez told me. "And of course, we have diversity at the door and on the floor." But, he agreed, "It's not the numbers we used to see. It's easier to eat in your neighborhood where restaurants may be more casual."

       An African-American friend agreed, "Uptown you look around and you see people who look like you. Downtown you expect to be stared at."         


It's cold for spring right now but our colors today -- new grass green and forsythia yellow should be everywhere soon.


The Cecil Vibe

       It was my most recent dinner at The Cecil on St. Nicholas Avenue that got me thinking about the  disappearance of blacks below 96th Street. Everyone I've taken to the sprawling brasserie of the African diaspora, run by Alexander Smalls for onetime Time Warner top gun Richard Parsons, has loved it. It's not only that we enjoy the cool urban mix. It's the grand theme of Asian, African and soul food so unlike what's cooking downtown. Some of the food is remarkably good and the odd cocktails are rather endearing.

       So here I am again just two weeks ago with a trio of first-timers. I suggest we get a side of the crispy  fried okra to munch with the drinks (which take a while to appear). The okra isn't as thrillingly crunchy as on my first visit but, even so, the ooze that makes so many of us hate okra is totally conquered. My friends are grooving already.

       When the oxtail dumplings flying a taro chip banner and the poussin with curry coconut sticky rice  and bourbon dried fruit are this luscious, the adventure  seems doubly rewarding. Two broiled giant prawns on a yam flapjack in a kicky piri piri sauce as a starter are probably not meant to be shared by four, though we try. I make up for that with the sensational chili scallion house-cut fries. I only mean to eat six but in the middle of it all, I forget. You'll want to go soon too, so click here for more on what to eat.

210 West 118th Street on the NW corner of St. Nicholas. 212 866 1262.

Beating Bobby Flay

       There must be a reason the Food Network thinks it has a winner in its new show, "Beat Bobby Flay." Food hounds, chef star wannabes, pumped-up cooking rivals, and self-nominated amateur critics might get a kick out of seeing the food world's matinee idol flattened a little.

       Those same marginalized narcissists and gripesters may hope to report that the golden boy's ambition, his dream of affirming his mastery in the restaurant orbit at brand new Gato, is tarnished. That only fans blindsided by love will fall for his predictable game. Sorry, bad news bears. Almost everything I've tasted in three early visits has been bold, original, smartly creative and delicious, if not just plain masterly.

       I couldn't wait to try his new food. I've been a fan since Jerome Kretchmer first signed him to open Mesa Grill. ( Click here to read that first review, "The Corn Is Blue.") Indeed, it's only a few weeks into Gato's quiet opening. Too soon to engrave a triumph in stars, but not too soon to be excited by what I've tasted. Partner Laurence Kretchmer keeps the booking sparse. Yelpsters and assorted first-nighters have figured that out and crowd the big rectangular bar early, vying to be seated at tables.

       And there is Flay in navy blue -- the baby-faced  redhead, now as lean and grownup gorgeous on the line in the glassed-wrapped kitchen as his glamorous wife, Stephanie March, at the next table (every night I was there with friends at a different table). Yes, it's not easy to get a booking but you will. So click here to read what I loved and hope to be tasting again soon.

324 Lafayette between Bleecker and Houston Streets. 212 334 6400


What's in the Larder?

       I know Gerry Dawes as a passionate champion of Spain, an importer of its wines and a photographer with a big lens. We did a wild tapas crawl once -- click here to read about it -- but I never got to know him well till several evenings ago when we shared bar snacks and pizza at Gato.

       It seems Dawes is also an improvisational cook. I liked the look of his ad-lib scallops. You don't need measurements or even the same ingredients on hand to throw a similar stir-fry together. He used leeks, celery, corn, Israeli couscous, orzo and grain with lots of crackled pepper. I see a little red pepper too. or is that tomato? Couldn't hurt. Send me a photograph of your cooking or baking triumph and maybe I'll post it. A little food porn goes a long way and it isn't fattening.

Cruising on The River Café

       On its second evening, I found Buzzy O'Keefe's massively fortified and reborn River Café wildly romantic. I've never lost the shiver of thrill I get from the diamond-filigree of bridge and skyline across the East River. It was quiet, the room sparsely occupied. The exuberance of rose bouquets was wonderfully extravagant. The amuse of tomato soup and Lilliputian grilled cheese sandwich was indeed amusing. And between sips of a friendly red and dinner table confessions, I was taken by large portions, mostly not too fussed with.

       Chef Brad Steelman is back -- Buzzy paid certain core staff to remain available in the time it took to  rebuild. My companion's soft polenta agnolotti line up on a mound of Barolo-braised oxtail -- breathtaking in its sensual richness and caramelized edging -- an abundant starter. Scattered tendrils of baby mizuna give it a fresh-from-the-farm verve.

       I suspect certain spoiled New Yorkers will always consider The River Café best left to the tourists. But don't count me among them. I find it to be a world-class restaurant in a unique and magical setting. If O'Keefe can resist overcrowding and beat the staff into four-star grace, it could ultimately be recognized as among the city's best of the best.  Click here to read my Bite: "The River Café for the Next 100 Years."

1 Water Street, Brooklyn. 718 522 5200

My Foodie Collection

       As a consultant and editor for --'s lively site for recipes and dining recommendations -- I just did my first Restaurant Collection. It's not unlike the occasional roundup of favorites I post on

       I've actually written about Where I Really Eat several times since I launched my site and the  destinations keep changing. Readers sometimes think I save my favorite little places for myself so they won't get overbooked, but amazingly -- as competitive as I am -- it has never occurred to me to keep a secret.

       You'll recognize some of my favorites from recent blogs and others because I go as often as I can and post favorite dishes on Twitter. If I had my way, I'd like voluptuous food photographs on my Foodie Restaurant Collection, but I'm not in charge. Foodie at runs the show and Glam just happens to be the world's most popular lifestyle destination in the ether.
Click here to read it.  


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Photographs of the room at Red Rooster, a table at Mountain Bird, The Cecil's bar, the dining room, Chef Johnson's baby chicken, and the remarkable macaroni, Gato's carrots and kale and mushroom paella, Gerry Dawes' improvisation, and the reflection and the duck at River Café may not be used without permission from Gael Greene or Gerry Dawes. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.