Traditional soul food, adventurous menus
Broad avenues lined with attractive old buildings, many of them home to cafes, bars and restaurants. Where can I be? Oh yes, Harlem.
These days the Manhattan neighbourhood offers welcoming establishments for exotic dishes and cocktails, along with soul food and home cooking.
Here are a few places I tried on a recent visit:
Corner Social: The friendly bar and restaurant serves an alarming-sounding concoction: deep-fried macaroni-and-cheese croquettes with truffle mayonnaise is US$12 ($15.4).
Executive chef Jonathan Romans, formerly of Tribeca Grill, seeks to take familiar dishes and give them a twist, so don't be too surprised by cheeseburger spring rolls or the meatloaf sandwich with Grafton Vermont cheddar.
Or you could just settle in at the bar and hand control to the affable cocktail mixer Carmen Operetta. (On Twitter, Carmen is @libationdiaries.)
A 321 Pineapple (Skyy pineapple vodka, pineapple juice, fresh lemon juice, creme de cassis, simple syrup) and a Peach and Almonds (Ciroc Peach, Amaretto di Saronno, orange juice, fresh lemon juice) helped while away an afternoon. The cocktails are $12 ($15.4). The check for one was $65.33 ($83.62), plus tip.
Corner Social is at 321 Lenox Avenue, 10027.
Red Rooster: Opened in 2010, it's become the top place to experience the cultural diversity of Harlem.
Chef Marcus Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden. He studied cooking in Gothenburg, where he grew up. He then worked in restaurants in France and moved to New York in 1994, with an apprenticeship at Aquavit.
There's a casual area in front, where you may find yourself sharing a high table. Having said that, the back is hardly fancy.
I started with an Obama-Tini, featuring Wodka Vodka, crushed pepper flakes, pineapple, lime, grapefruit bitters, angostura bitters (US$13/$16.6). Or how about some wine on tap for US$10 ($12.8)? I had a glass of Paumanok New York rose. It was fine.
The menu is best described as eclectic. I skipped chop suey and Helga's meatballs in favour of two starters: fried green tomatoes with iceberg lettuce, bacon and buttermilk dressing (US$13/$16.6) and dirty rice & shrimp with aged basmati, curry leaves, almonds (US$18) plus a side of spicy wings, with lemon yogurt and habanero salsa. Now that's what I call a lunch.
Desserts include dark chocolate cheesecake, layers of devil's food, frozen raspberries, warm white chocolate and mint- tea sauce (US$11/$23). I gave that a miss. The food was good, the service friendly and the bill for two was US$141.27 ($181).
Red Rooster is at 310 Lenox Avenue, 10027.
Sylvia's: Founded in 1962 by Sylvia Woods, "Queen of Soul Food," it's been the magnet for hearty eaters from all over town. (When Woods died last year, the Rev. Al Sharpton said he recalled dining there with everyone from President Obama to Caroline Kennedy, the New York Daily News reported.)
The tourists still come, but the ambience felt authentic enough. You can sit at a counter and grab some food and a beer. A more formal dining area across two rooms appears untroubled by renovation.
I ordered a beer and a Harlem-style fried chicken and waffle. (That costs US$11.95/$15.32; US$1/$1.28 more for all white meat.) This signature dish is beloved of diners and has been a favourite for decades. I enjoyed the experience more than the food, but it's certainly filling. Everyone should go to Sylvia's at least once. Bill for one: US$20.63 ($26.45).
Sylvia's is at 328 Lenox Avenue, 10027.
5 and Diamond: This venue on Harlem's restaurant row says it uses fresh ingredients from local farms, markets and purveyors to create a seasonal American menu.
I went for brunch, which features a US$20 ($15.3) prix-fixe menu, including a cocktail. Or, for another US$10 ($12.8), you can have unlimited brunch cocktails for 60 minutes. Rarely has US$10 been so well spent.
There are large windows looking out onto the street and it is enjoyable just to take in the sights on a sunny morning in Harlem. The service is laid back yet efficient. Highlights of the a la carte menu include blackened catfish with white speckled grits, bacon-braised collard greens; grilled pork chop with red quinoa, molasses bourbon glaze; 5 and diamond donuts.
5 & Diamond is at 2072 Frederick Douglass Boulevard, 10026.
Melba's: This small restaurant was founded in 2005 by, Melba Wilson, who describes herself as Harlem born, bred and buttered. She previously worked at Sylvia's, as well at Windows on the World and her aim is to make Melba's feel like home.
When I was there for Sunday brunch, that was the style, with groups of friends - many in their finest frocks - eating together and just enjoying one another's company.
You can choose between grits, home fries and French fries with your main. I ordered a salmon croquette with grits and a Chambord royale cocktail, for US$22.81 ($29.24).
Melba's is at 330 West 114th Street, 10026.