Make Harlem's Mountain Bird a Destination
Harlem is in no immediate danger of becoming the next Williamsburg, but as high-rises and Whole Foods sprout in the upper reaches of Manhattan, the vast neighborhood has begun to show ripples of gentrification. But an industrial stretch of 145th Street that houses Mountain Bird is not one of them.
"But," you may protest, "chef Kenichi Tajima trained in French cuisine at Tokyo's prestigious Tsuji Cooking Academy, later working under François Payard and Philippe Bertineau in New York. There are miniature tureens filled with bean-speckled vanilla butter meant for spreading onto musky pumpernickel baguettes, well worth the price of admission at $4." And while Tajima's fastidious, Old Guard-inspired Francophile cooking is indeed precious, at its heart, Mountain Bird serves the community. Families pepper the tables among local couples enjoying date night and food-loving Brooklyn adventurers.
The shabby-chic dining room, a cobbled-together mélange of mismatched tables and foggy mirrors, features a tiled floor that spells out the restaurant's name. Walk in early enough, and you'll be asked to keep your meal to two hours. The alternative is a wait just as long; a bleak outcome, to be sure, when the nearest watering hole is too far to justify a trip. A lone server presides over the dining room, acting as host, waitress, and occasional dishwasher. She is joined by the most badass busboy I've ever had the pleasure of meeting, who one snowy night delivered elegant cups of foie gras dumpling consommé ($7) while sporting a flat-rimmed Chicago Bulls cap, his ponytail pulled through the back. The man was a water-pouring Jedi, and he somehow made handing me the chia seed-spiked guava wine cooler I'd ordered a powerfully masculine transaction.
Despite the casual approach to fine dining, this is still a bare-bones operation. In Mountain Bird's case, it's joyously endearing. There's an ambitious attention to detail evidenced in the monogrammed dishware and diminutive vessels used to side portions of rice and vegetables. Moreover, there's a whimsy to Tajima's food that, when compounded with the price, makes Mountain Bird a necessary addition to the city's dining landscape, and an essential uptown destination. Equal parts earnestness and finesse, the chef's bird-crammed cassoulet, the most expensive entrée at $20, builds on a foundation of turkey sausage, turkey bacon, duck gizzard confit, and gelatinous cockscombs. Covered in breadcrumbs, a fork-tender confit duck leg takes center stage.
In the great Japanese yakitori tradition, Mountain Bird deals in the praise of poultry. In addition to dedicated first courses, guests can order a "head-to-toe" sampler of four small tastes that showcases a variety of avian parts. Tajima's flavor profiles hew toward classic French, though there's a cultural fusion apparent in his creative approach. Don't just pop things in your mouth at random, though. A smooth quenelle of chicken liver pâté paired with port wine gelée on toast kicks off the adventure, which cycles through deep-fried cockscomb topped with honey-mustard tartar sauce, a garlicky duck heart and gizzard spring roll, and an aggressively seasoned sweet-and-sour chicken lollipop grounded by earthy black truffles.
You'll find most of the non-avian dishes among the appetizers, including painterly seared scallops straddling a tumble of vegetables under the froth of mussel saffron foam. Elsewhere, two scallops might easily fetch $20. Here, they're a $14 appetizer.
In my younger days, reports of an incipient beef shortage would have sent me running to the nearest butcher shop. No longer, thanks to Tajima's masterful turkey burger ($13). Yes, a turkey burger, and one whose consumption doesn't result in self-loathing or flagellation. The key is fat and flavor, which come in the form of smoky barbecue sauce and turkey bacon, a toasted brioche bun, and single layers of lettuce and tomato. All of that would make for a fine if unremarkable burger, but Tajima ups the ante by concealing a molten pool of black truffle Mornay sauce within the patty, which bursts forth onto the plate. The smokiness of the barbecue sauce and bacon combined with the creamy mushroom sauce is extraordinary. Crunchy potato croquettes are perfect for dipping in excess Mornay.
Desserts are limited to baked goods, but the cakes on offer yield overwhelming delights, particularly sticky toffee walnut fig with cream cheese and sour cream icing. As spartan as the restaurant's interior, they're served with vanilla whipped cream. Like Mountain Bird, they're affordable gems.
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