There’s no better distillation of chef Ryan Skeen’s talent than a certain fish plate at his new Harlem restaurant, 5 & Diamond. Buttery swatches of raw yellowtail belly flop on nubs of tempura-fried watermelon radish, with a salty black-bean vinaigrette. That interplay between different modes of fattiness—the silken fish, the crisply battered, pungent vegetable—is both surprising and vaguely familiar. You’ve had these elements in proximity before (sashimi, radish), but never quite like this.
At Resto and Irving Mill, Skeen became known for in-your-face, pork-o-phile dishes like pork-rind Rice Krispies treats, deep-fried pork toast topped with caviar, and a burger fashioned from a handmade mix of beef cheek, flap steak, and pork fatback. Most of his publicity shots involve him posing with a very large, very dead pig. But he’s also capable of coaxing intensity out of delicate ingredients. And that’s what’s most appealing about 5 & Diamond—the cooking of a chef who loves big flavors skewed toward the brighter, lighter ethos of spring. (Don’t worry: The drippy burger is back and as good as ever, as are a few other lipid-soaked pleasures.)
Skeen has bounced around a bit since 2007—from Resto to Irving Mill to the ill-starred Allen & Delancey. He won himself a dramatic exit from the last, Twittering, “Get me the fuck out of NYC.” Unsurprisingly, his boss promptly fired him, reportedly by e-mail. Ah, the joys of virtual aggression. Skeen’s Twitter feed remains active. Most recently, he and chef Joe Dobias of Joe Doe have engaged in an online pissing contest (sample, from Skeen: “. . . why dont u get ur induction kitchen load it on ur bike and I will teach u how to cook”).
But 5 & Diamond is a calm place, and an eater camped out at one of the tables with a glass of Viognier and grilled prawns would never guess at such backstage drama. Skeen emerges periodically from the kitchen to putter good-naturedly around the dining room, particularly tending to those who have ordered his tasting menu ($50 and up). Though the small space is pleasantly neutral, it could use a bit more character—it’s just black tables and chairs, and an unadorned gray wall. Thankfully, a huge spray of pink rhododendrons brightens the bar.
The menu is divided into “small plates” ($12 to $16), which function fine as appetizers, large dishes ($22 to $35), and sides and bar food, a category that includes that juicy burger ($13).
One Saturday night, four of us ordered far too much food and whiled away a two-hour dinner as the evening light faded from the restaurant’s large front windows. We shared that wonderful hamachi, plus one of the best rabbit dishes I’ve had recently, a bowl of peppery, loose bunny sausage with spätzle in a shallow pool of vividly flavored, foamy Parmesan broth, along with a scattered brunoise of zucchini, summer squash, and red onions.
On another small plate, grilled sepia (cuttlefish) line up in a neat row of four, like a little army of aliens. “They look like something out of The Fifth Element,” said my friend. The bulbous, tentacled creatures are tender and slightly charred, served over stewy mounds of black olives, shallots, and pequillo peppers. Those warm Mediterranean flavors show up again in a less successful burrata-bread salad with eggplant, olives, and arugula. It’s fine—just nothing you haven’t had before.
Of the mains, we particularly admired the Iowa Farms pork loin with white asparagus purée, ramps, and pickled blueberries. The pork itself is extremely lean, though well-seasoned and reasonably juicy. But the stellar accompaniments make the plate—earthy, rich cream of asparagus balanced by the tart surprise of pickled berries and the garlicky savor of ramps. Crisp-skinned trout has become a relatively common preparation, but it’s done very well here, especially partnered with more of that white asparagus purée, which I could eat a bowl of. The steak, a ribeye from Creekstone Farm, is excellently blackened and salty on the outside, bloody and mineral on the inside. It’s topped with tobacco onions, an ’80s invention of Dallas chef Dean Fearing: onion rings sprinkled with cayenne, paprika, and flour, and fried until they resemble dried tobacco. But the creamed kale that hid under the hunk of beef was tough. (I know some people like their kale barely cooked, but I’m not one of them, especially when it’s meant to be creamed.)
Surprisingly, the tasting of lamb, probably the richest large plate aside from the steak, was nothing special, a tiny rectangle of belly with undistinguished seared loin and a pile of Swiss chard and green chickpeas.
On another evening, we ordered from the bar menu. Here’s over-the-top for you—mac-and-cheese of orecchiette in a mind-bendingly delicious Gruyère béchamel, topped with bright orange, sharp Mimolette cheese. That’s a lot of pleasure for $8. The burger is still Skeen’s specially mixed blend. The meat is coarsely ground and juicy, seared to a gorgeous golden-crunchy salty crust on the outside and properly pink throughout for medium-rare. The soft potato bun doesn’t quite hold up, though, disintegrating under the moist heft.
There are some things you can depend on: The F train will not run on weekends, chefs will abuse Twitter, and Ryan Skeen will make a great burger.