Have you ever eaten a meal so delicious that you didn’t want to go home? That ‘s what happened when I went to Alexander Smalls’ house. Back in the day when he hosted his own lavish dinner parties while living the life of a globe trotting divo baritone opera singer, folks would fall in and feast. Today as Executive Chef and restaurateur, Smalls has two houses – Harlem’s two hottest restaurants—The Cecil and Minton’s.
I dined at The Cecil recently where the food was more than wonderful. We didn’t want the night to end. We just wanted to linger, eat and talk. The atmosphere was gracious and lovely and full of New York’s beautiful, colorful people. At nearby tables I spotted three Food Network TV stars, some mommy bloggers, old-school folks, home girls and luminaries from New York’s music, arts and political scene.
Folks are filing in, not falling in and feasting on food from the African Diaspora. And right now Smalls is New York’s top chef. The New York Daily News just published their list of the city’s best food of 2013 ("The best and worst dishes for 2013," Sunday, December 22). The Cecil’s Roasted Poussin Yassa reigns at the top of the list. Hail to the chief!
With masterful riffs of classical and improvisational jazzy food elements by Joseph Johnson as Chef de Cuisine (see "The Cecil: Comfort Comes to Harlem," December 2013, ebony.com), Smalls elevated comfort food to a new platform. This Afro-Asian-American Brasserie is a partnership between media mogul Richard Parsons, wife Laura, and Smalls, owner and chef of the famous Café Beulah (1990s in Flatiron District) that featured his signature Low Country cuisine.
I purposely avoided using such simple labels as ‘soul’ or ‘fusion’ during my recent conversation with Mr. Smalls, who has a warm, effervescent and larger-than-life personality. When you meet him, you can imagine him onstage starring in the Houston Opera Company’s “Porgy and Bess.” All of those confining labels reserved for African American chefs immediately fall away. For both restaurants, he talked about awesome and fun food narratives and legacy flavor profiles from a Black perspective.
“Guided by this concept of African Diaspora, we have conspired to create a cuisine that integrates the rich culinary heritage from many cultures,” said Smalls, who was featured on the Food Network with Bobby Flay.
“I am a story teller and always had a passion to connect the dots through my heritage, music and food. Africa is at the root of my cooking but so is Europe. I saw the pollination of many cultures as I travelled. So, whether I am in South Africa or Mexico, I am inspired by their traditions, ingredients, and seasonings, to create something delicious that can blend with my Low Country tradition,” said Smalls, a native of Spartanburg, South Carolina.
Bottom line, all the food at The Cecil is delicious. There is an informed and discriminating touch that you can taste and see all around you. Every plate told a story from the transatlantic slave trade to the new world and beyond. These were the kinds of stories that infused our conversations as we ate! As a genealogist, stories told through food were largely how I learned my family history. And so it was for Smalls, who has written a book filled with family stories called “Grace the Table: Stories and Recipes from My Southern Revival.”
“I come from a family of storytellers. My desire to travel and develop my journeys through music and food most likely came from my elders’ stories at the kitchen table,” said Smalls.
Whether you are from the Diaspora community or beyond, you will recognize a food language and even try to translate what you ate here. The Cecil is truly an imaginative and delectable dining experience.
The Cecil has game in more ways than one. It features a lot of game and fish including guinea hen, duck, chicken, and meats. Try the one-pot for two, Brazilian feijoada ($40), Ghanaian fufu, the breaded, fried Guinea hen ($27) with charred okra, roasted sweet potatoes and chicory or the award-winning roasted poussin yassa. Spicy crispy ginger squid ($14) is a signature dish paired with perfect okra. Actually, okra is featured in several dishes—especially as a side order, that I gobbled up so fast that I forgot to share. Papaya chutney, fried plantain and the shredded kale are all magnificent. The vegetarian Black Bottom Bean Cake reminiscent of Nigerian moi moi, made with black beans instead of mashed black-eyes peas was delightful too.
The Cecil’s hand-made breads basket ($8) was popular with my dining companions. We ordered about four of them! It featured a hot airy, roti with dipping sauces that ranged from sweet to spicy. The oxtail dumplings were another big hit! Take your time and leave room for drinks and dessert before you pass out.
Connoisseurs, take note, food is rocking Uptown again. But be prepared, this is not a cheap date. The Cecil should be reserved for that special night out in Harlem that you have been dreaming about.