Set in the ground floor of the old Hotel Cecil, Alexander Smalls and Richard Parsons’s new restaurant, The Cecil, neatly follows Harlem’s historic neighborhood narrative. In the 1940s and ’50s, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker bebopped their way into the jazz canon at Minton’s Playhouse, a club adjoining the hotel, but by the late 1970s, Minton’s was closed and the Hotel Cecil fell into dereliction. It was home to the homeless, the mentally ill, and other welfare cases.
Things have improved since then; Minton’s reopened and closed again in recent decades, and the hotel now rents rooms as residences, but no one had done anything enduring with the downstairs spaces — until this fall, when Parsons, a former Time Warner and Citigroup exec, personally financed a refurbishment of both, remaking a quiet corner in Smalls’s vision.
To breathe new life into such a place is a great gift. As Manhattan evolves, and Harlem with it, into a glittering playground for the rich and famous, new places in old spaces that honor their roots will be the lifeblood of the city, and Smalls and Parsons have made a mission of honoring their roots. They’ve reopened Minton’s into a snazzy jazz club. Next door, The Cecil is poised to become a neighborhood standby. Serving “Afro-American-Asian” dishes pulling influence from the sum total of the African diaspora, East Asia to West Indies, the menu is ambitious and exciting, the dining room clean and classy.
With chef de cuisine Joseph “JJ” Johnson (Jane, Tribeca Grill) in charge of bringing Smalls’s palate to the plate, the kitchen is in capable hands; you can taste excellence in a delicate puréed turnip soup ($9) or in a bowl of oxtail dumplings ($14), paper-thin packages stuffed with soft, fatty ribbons of meat, brightened by fragrant coconut curry and toasty taro root.
In other plates, outstanding details: A bloody grilled tenderloin ($26) is well-seasoned and beefy, but the okra fries that come with it, salted, battered, and crisped to all get-out, are brilliant. Golden fried guinea hen ($27) embraces Southern cookery, but the warm scent of cinnamon, dusted into the skin, sends the bird flying over Africa.
So the restaurant has mettle; what it lacks is consistency. One night, a lovely feijoada, ($27/$47) — Brazilian for “meat and beans” — fails on temperature alone. Fat from a fine stand of oxtail can’t melt through the beans, and cold deadens the musky twinge of a plump lamb sausage.
Chronic cool was an issue that night: Chilly black bottom bean cakes ($11) are mealy and dense as hockey pucks; duck fried noodles ($32) come topped with an egg poached hard and dry. Milky cashew broth is cool and viscous, the noodles pasty, and a fat leg of duck is parched and stiff, like the dish had been left beneath a not-so-hot heat lamp to die.
Another night, things are better. A salad of roasted beets, brussels sprouts, and hearts of palm ($14) made nice on the plate with pickled scallion and yogurt. I’ll forgive 15-minute drink orders (the drinks, like a toasted sesame highball, are as elaborate as they are interesting) or a forgotten bowl of macaroni and cheese ($16), which was great, once we got it. I might not mind having to ask for share plates four times, even if I receive them only as we finish our entrées. But don’t cap these errors with regular coffee under the auspices of decaf unless you want a night of bleary-eyed brooding over all that was missed.
The other night, our server is so unable to deliver basic information on the food that the fusion feels impossibly esoteric and unfamiliar, even though it isn’t. That night, I learn more about the menu from my date. As we finish our dinner — the server blissfully unaware of our dissatisfaction — I say that I can’t imagine this place will succeed, which is sad, given the clear amount of money that’s gone into it.
But my date has lived in Harlem a decade, and knows the area better than me. No, he says, it will prosper. He says downtowners, unable to imagine heading above the park with any frequency, think new places uptown must be over-the-top excellent to survive, but actually, the opposite is true. People will suck up a lot for a local, formal place to sit and break bread. The widely loathed but always packed Harlem Tavern a few blocks away is testament to this.
So birthday dinners will happen here. As will holiday parties and Tuesday night dates, and that’s terrific news for everyone. But those patrons deserve this restaurant to become what it could and should be. And not demanding it do so will hold both them and the restaurant back, will keep Smalls’s vision from reaching its full potential, and there is no bigger shame, or waste, than that.