Williamsburg's Sweet Chick Revives an Iconic Harlem Favorite
Fried chicken and waffles seem like an odd pairing, as if somebody were trying to cram dinner and breakfast into a single meal. Which is just how it originated in the late 1940s at Wells' Restaurant in Harlem. At this celebrated wee-hours hang for jazz musicians after their gigs, jam sessions were inevitable, but a bigger challenge was deciding what to eat. It was too late for supper and too early for breakfast, so the hepcats and hangers-on decided to chow down on chicken and waffles as a best-of-both-worlds compromise. The dish soon embedded itself in the popular imagination, spawning imitators as far away as Los Angeles.
Nowadays the iconic conjoinment is a tough find in Harlem, but it's being revived in Williamsburg. Sweet Chick debuted a few months ago at North 8th Street and Bedford Avenue, in a corner space that was previously the neighborhood laundromat. Now, instead of whirling washers and dryers, historic waffle irons decorate the walls, pointing to the long history of the gridded Dutch flat-cake in New York City. A tumultuous communal table in the center of the dining room finds favor with visitors on their way to bars and clubs, but more intimate tables good for lingering are also scattered here and there.
The menu's bedrock is the venerable combo of chicken and waffles. This being the 'Burg, the fried chicken mimics the extensively brined product sold not far away at Pies 'n' Thighs, with a thickish crust and pillowy flesh. While my own preferences are for a dusting of flour and not brining the bird (making it chewier but more flavorful), I've got to admit Sweet Chick's product is perfect of its type. You can get three big pieces in a paper-lined bucket with kale slaw and a more-cakey-than-flaky buttermilk biscuit for $17. But then you'd be missing the wonderful waffles.
Sweet Chick embellishes the original Wells' formula by offering three kinds instead of just one. Thicker but with a smaller circumference, all are of the "Belgian" variety—so named because this type was popularized at the 1964 New York World's Fair by Belgians clearly trying to one-up their Dutch neighbors. The restaurant's plain waffle is sweet without being too sweet, light in texture without floating off the plate, and thankfully free of the artificial maple flavoring that ruins many waffles. Two other choices are available: rosemary and mushroom, and bacon and cheddar. Both are surprisingly good, despite being sweet in a way that doesn't seem quite consistent with their savory names. All chicken-waffle combos come with two pieces of poultry and one waffle for $16, a meal big enough that appetizers or sides are unnecessary.
On the other hand, a few of the apps are remarkably good. There's a pickle plate ($9) that might feed an army—a startling array of cucumbers, okra, boiled eggs, carrots, and watermelon in the scattered style of pickling now forever associated with Brooklyn. A kale BLT salad features chopped tomatoes and big slabs of bacon thrown across the top, in addition to the chewy leaf, while another salad of grilled romaine comes sprinkled with cornbread croutons and a blue cheese dressing, riffing engagingly on Caesar salad. The biggest dud among starters is bacon-wrapped oysters ($9). While the menu listing may conjure images of deep-fried bivalves swaddled in bacon, the oysters turned out to be steamed and rubbery, served cold on the half shell with little bits of bacon sprinkled on top and entirely unappetizing to look at.
You're going to wish you'd stuck with the chicken and waffles if you dive into the regular entrées. A fine skin-on fillet of arctic char ($21) is ruined by being balanced atop a mountain of crawfish-dotted white beans so profuse and bland, eating even half would be daunting to contemplate. In similar fashion, a nicely cooked pork fillet arrives paved with pickled mustard seeds, which makes every bite a gritty slog. It's as if the restaurant were trying to compensate for its refreshingly simple main offering by making the rest of the menu needlessly complex.
How did this place end up with a full liquor license? The cocktails here seem as if they're aimed at 12-year-olds: pink and purple, sweet and fizzy, things that really don't jibe with fried chicken. Follow your instincts and drink lager. Or do what the jazz musicians once did as dawn approached: Wash your dinner-breakfast down with coffee.
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