A vertical blue neon sign glows outside the restaurant The Cecil (210 West 118th Street; 212-866-1262), an Afro-Asian-American restaurant. Inside, the restaurant is expansive, the lights dimmed, the atmosphere romantic. Opened by Richard Parsons and Alexander Smalls in 2013, the Cecil honors the food of the African diaspora, its menu a study of Chinese and Vietnamese influences on the West Africa.
Executive chef Joseph “JJ” Johnson heads both The Cecil’s kitchen and its sister eatery and jazz club, Minton’s. Before the opening of the Cecil, as preparation, Johnson cooked in Ghana for a month so he could experience firsthand how to make West African and Chinese dishes. Throughout his lifetime, Smalls has extensively traveled throughout Africa, to learn about the food and its influence.
“If you go to the West Indies, you see a lot of Chinese influence, but also you see the African influence. It’s kind of like the diaspora map, where the diaspora traveled and its influence through food. That’s what we’re celebrating,” Johnson tells the Voice.
“In Ghana, there’s a lot of Chinese, and in Senegal, many Vietnamese. They’re migrant workers — actually the first to come into West Africa after India, and they influenced cooking techniques, ” Johnson continues. “If you look at Jamaica as a whole, there are a lot of Chinese [there], and that’s where it comes from.”
Asian influences can be found throughout The Cecil’s menu, particularly in the rice and vegetable wok bar. With the wok bar, there are three different rice and sauce options; on a recent visit, we created a pineapple black fried-rice wok, with chili tofu and curry sauce ($17).
The black fried rice is a little toothier than your typical white rice, with pieces of carrots, onions and crisp edamame tossed throughout. The curry sauce is luscious and rolls around on the tongue nicely, with a slightly nutty note and creamy quality. Other options for the wok bar that yield more of a Western African flavor are the jollof rice and beans and piri piri sauce.
Johnson places black bean cakes ($22) in a sea of eggplant ragu. Tender pieces of eggplant are present throughout the tomato-based sauce, and the skin from the beans adds another delicate layer of texture to the cakes. Hints of cilantro and cinnamon are found throughout the dish, adding piquancy, but the cinnamon doesn’t kick in until later.
A whole roasted plantain ($9) is accompanied by bird’s eye chili jam, but the plantain itself is firmer than expected. To properly eat the plantain, you must cut it up and dip it into the jam, which surrounds the plantain on the plate. The jam has a spicy punch to it, and the cilantro provides an earthy tanginess to the overall combination.
The coconut grits ($9) are a winner. Though the dish is sweet, there are layers to the sugariness. The grits themselves are smooth and milky, with little kernels present. Overall, the grits are luxurious — a few bites of the dish goes a long way for your taste buds.