For last week’s review, I visited Harlem’s Cheri (231 Lenox Avenue, 212-662-4374), a homey French restaurant from Alain Eoche that serves a great burger and not much else. Kitchen mishaps aside, Cheri also happens to be one of the more inviting restaurants that’s opened in recent memory, in part because it’s designed to feel like an apartment in the midst of a communal dinner party. If only the food matched the decor, it would be worth a detour, but it still serves a purpose in the neighborhood.
Then you have a place like Vinateria (2221 Frederick Douglass Boulevard, 212-662-8462), which is also beautifully designed — this time in subdued grayscale shades — but has a far more consistent kitchen.
The corner space on 119th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard radiates with life under low lights, with a small crowd spilling out on to the sidewalk. The room feels stylish, and its monochrome color scheme highlights colorful plates of food like hand-cut beef tartare topped with a quail egg and a salad of red and yellow beets. Wines are further separated beyond simple red and white selections into light, medium, and full categories, which mimics the food menu, also split up into small, medium, and large plates.
House-made pastas are a surefire order, from cavatelli studded with pork sausage and broccoli rabe to fettucine with wild mushrooms. The black squid ink spaghetti, with chunks of tender octopus, Calabrian chilies, and toasted breadcrumbs, had intense oceanic depth and an aggressive hand with spicing. Toothsome and slicked with sauce, the pasta makes an easy appetizer or shared mid-course. It was marvelous paired with a Bodegas Ponce Reto Manchuela, a dry Spanish white listed under the full section. The noodles run $16 to $17, with entree-size portions staying under $25. It’s not as much of a steal as Cherí’s $32 two-course prix fixe. But then, it’s a far more compelling restaurant.