The commercial real estate below French-born Alain Eoche’s Lenox Avenue brownstone apartment looked like it was on the brink of opening for months before it blossomed as Chéri in early March. But out of the many residents of Harlem’s Mount Morris Park Historic District, perhaps none was more excited for the quirky, urbane restaurant’s arrival than Eoche, who serves as its dutiful chef and host.
In the shadow of the Romanesque revival St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, Chéri is designed to feel like a fashionable Francophilic apartment. The whitewashed main dining room is dominated by plush salon chairs that also accent a very den-like patch of space featuring a flat-screen TV playing French films on mute (on one of our visits it was Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle), a non-working fireplace that glows with faux embers, and a color-coordinated bookshelf stocked with popular titles such as Harry Potter, Ted Bell suspense novels, and The Low-Carb Bible. When the 45-seat dining room fills up, at least you can rest your tired bones in style. The room is split by a long wooden communal dining table and a grand piano that occasionally gets its ivories tickled, especially during brunch, when live performers like Harlem jazz crooner Lady Leah hold court.
Come summer, there may be no more posh an uptown backyard than Eoche’s, whose greenhouse patio is outfitted in bamboo, exposed brick, and houseplants lit from underneath for dramatic effect. When temperatures rise, the brick walls give off a particular humid musk that’s almost New Orleanian. But despite what the thermometer (and common sense) says, a fire pit stands in the center of the room.
Based purely on aesthetics, then, Chéri should nab a spot alongside the new crop of neighborhood darlings like Mountain Bird, The Cecil, and Vinatería. And so far, it’s enjoyed the attention of French travelers, expats, and Harlem residents alike, including many fashion and style dignitaries such as CFDA Instagrammer of the year nominee Dapper Lou and Ty Hunter, Beyoncé’s stylist. But unlike the trendy people who’ve been filling up Chéri’s seats, or even what’s served at those other Harlem hot spots, Chéri’s food is almost stubbornly dated. At first glance, Eoche’s two-course, $32 prix fixe appears to be yet another entry in the trend of chefs dictating what their diners eat, but the kitchen graciously provides several alternatives to the night’s rotating menu, including a superb brie-topped burger made with beef ground in-house, caramelized onions, herbed mayonnaise, and chimichurri sauce on a Balthazar-baked potato bun. Strangely and upsettingly, it’s served with soft hash browns instead of proper French fries. You might also be tempted to order the $19 “big salad of the day” — don’t. Ours would have been ticketed for public indecency it was so underdressed, and was seemingly missing much of the rotisserie chicken that our waitress announced would be joining greens and diced cucumber.
And therein lies Chéri’s main problem: Much of the food can’t live up to the setting. While the dinner party vibe is infectious, execution is lacking overall. One night, our meal began with an appetizer of baby shrimp fanned out across a ring-molded mound of guacamole that was devoid of any acidic counterpoint. The next visit, a mixture of goat cheese and ratatouille was lively, but the baked zucchini halves it was stuffed in needed salt. In fact, salt shakers adorn each table, and too often it would seem they’re intended to be used.
Eight wines are offered either by bottle or glass, along with seven wine-based cocktails that are best overlooked in favor of pure grape juice. We managed to find a palatable Malbec for a not-horrible $43.
Our friend the ring mold appeared again to form a tower of olive mashed potatoes next to a main course of sautéed cod. The starchy structure would have hushed up any adulterated mashed potato naysayers, but the fish was overcooked, its skin wilted from sitting in a pool of olive oil sauce. Soggy skin also marred both breast and leg on a roast chicken entrée (served every Sunday), even though the meat had that great, concentrated flavor of rotisserie fowl. A sole dessert is offered each night, and despite a heavy hand with the gelatin, a vanilla panna cotta with fresh raspberries and raspberry coulis proved to be a cheerful send-off. Pair it with a $14 glass of Sauternes, an oddly sophisticated touch for such a homey restaurant.
Service is friendly, if a bit slow; one night there were half-hour waits between courses. But even with these mishaps, Chéri is disarmingly appealing. Wiling away an evening or weekend afternoon listening to jazz and fluttering chatter, it’s easy to get swept up in the laissez-faire attitude. If only the cooking didn’t feel the same.