September 17, 2018 | BITE: My Journal
Life is Like That: JJ Johnson Takes Over
Salmon with rice noodles with bok choy and edamame in African nectar broth.
I fell for Chef Joseph ”JJ” Johnson’s riff on the cooking of Africa, the Caribbean, Asia and the American south at The Cecil in Harlem and persuaded many friends to join me there before and after I reviewed it. We would order the always evolving exotica and, invariably, at my insistence, the lush mac’n’cheese. I had to have it again and again. I recall arguing once with J.J. about why the portion had gotten smaller.
JJ Johnson arrives midway through our dinner and comes by to say hello.
Henry’s Tamarind Jerk BBQ chicken is served with soy-braised greens on plantain purée.
Long after The Cecil closed, visions of grilled hibiscus St. Louis ribs with blue corn meal still haunted me. I named those ribs one of the best dishes of 2015. I was hoping for a rib revival when I heard that J.J. had taken over the kitchen at Henry in the Life Hotel.
The shocking pink neon JJ logo, visible from the street, announces Johnson’s takeover of Henry’s kitchen.
The shocking pink neon JJ in the window as you arrive stakes his claim. The new diversity in servers delivering a giant bone-in short rib to a new diversity of eaters is a welcome byproduct. I really liked the food when Steve Hanson’s longtime partner Michael Vignola was the chef. The pizzas, the clams stuffed with a compound butter of n’duja and Calabrian chilis and the juicy chicken thighs kept bringing me back. Click here to read Henry: Starting Over. (By the way, the restaurant’s recorded telephone message still names Vignola as the chef.)
Star sommelier Pam Wiznitzer comes by our table to say hello to my dining companions.
The bar downstairs, Gibson+Luce, and the cocktail menu upstairs is by Pamela Wiznitzer. She came from the Upper East Side Seamstress and she’s still mixing here.
Tuna tartare with benne seeds and peanut curry crunch is served in small mounds on shiso leaves.
The yassa corn on the cob is too soft and watery at our first dinner, but firm and fresh on a second visit.
I wish I were that wild about JJ’s menu. I like the tuna tartare with benne seed and peanut curry crunch served on shisho leaves, and the yassa corn with onions, Dijon mustard and coconut. The sticky tamarind jerk BBQ chicken on plantain puree is only a tiny bit overcooked.
The roti is topped with a fried egg and served alongside eggplant puree, spinach chutney and beet hummus.
“Do you have any bread?” I ask.
The waiter brings us an order of roti with chutneys. “It’s my gift.” Ask for just the roti; it will be $7, JJ tells me.
This is the crispy, $42 whole cornmeal-crusted porgy in purple yam-papaya escovitch with long beans.
Three of us contentedly dedicate ourselves to separating the whole cornmeal crusted porgy, fried and pickled in escovitch style, from its bones, devouring every morsel, and scooping up the papaya, yam and Brazil nut rubble served alongside.
Con Con is sticky rice with eggplant curry. It was better on our first visit.
I’m not wild about the collard green salad with adjuki beans and cashews, but a girl needs her greens.
Maybe the salmon served with bok choy and rice noodles in an African nectar broth could be a bit more rare. I was eager to taste the big, prehistoric beef rib but my companions at a second dinner were pescatarians. I resisted spending $75 on a gigantic excess of cow to satisfy my own carnivorous longings. When you eat out six nights a week as I do, there’s always another hunk of meat lurking around the corner.
The piri piri clams with fennel are not an impressive replacement to the baked clams Henry once served.
It isn’t easy to divide an ice cream pop on a stick into three portions but my friend Andrew is a carving pro.
My pals agree to share a dessert. “As long as it isn’t the foie gras marshmallow crispy treat,” I rule. It takes a while to flag down our server. I probably should have asked for details of the Choco Flan with Valrhona (sic) Nyangbo cake with Dukkah-spiced hazelnut. But the Mango Passion Rice Cream Pop caught our attention. Ice cream on a stick with toasted coconut and pink peppercorns in a dark chocolate cloak is not exactly easy to divide in three. My friend Andrew, once a professional cook himself, did the carving. It is delicious.
Two of us choose the fruity “Wait Wait,” bourbon with plantain, lemon and ginger.
I ask JJ why the menu doesn’t have more of his wonderfully creative dishes from The Cecil. “Why didn’t you do the mac’n’cheese? I loved so much” He explains that not all the dishes were his. It seems Cecil’s managing partner Alexander Smalls contributed to the menu too.
"But couldn’t you do your own mac’n’cheese?” I ask.
He looks at me blankly. Seemingly not at all interested.
“Well, I was thinking of doing a tofu macaroni,” he finally confides.
Henry’s lobby tables are full of lively eaters and refill as the evening goes on.
I’ll not be rushing back to Henry’s. I’m glad Johnson will soon enough be dividing his time with a second restaurant, a fast casual spot showcasing grains in Harlem, his first as a participating partner. I’ll be there to taste. Hopefully he’ll stir up some passion for pleasing.
19 West 31st Street. 212 615 9910. Open daily from 5 pm to 10:30. Breakfast and lunch to come soon.
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