April 19, 2010 | BITE: My Journal

5 & Diamond: And to Think I Ate it on Frederick Douglass Boulevard

Uni on hamachi tucked in a pork rind brings a sea urchin lover to her knees. Photo: Steven Richter
Uni on hamachi tucked in a pork rind brings a sea urchin lover to her knees. Photo: Steven Richter

        I suspect my desperate need to get back fast to 5 & Diamond in Harlem for another tasting is not just because I liked it and chef Ryan Skeen has a rap sheet for short engagements.  It’s more likely I’m on a psychedelic high from tasting the best thing done to a sea urchin since Jean-Georges’s uni on dark bread with jalapeño, possibly even since the urchin in a Nantucket scallop shell that had foodies storming Union Pacific in the days when Rocco DiSpirito was still cheffing.

Ryan Skeen’s wanderlust has taken him to this satisfying spot uptown. Photo: Steven Richter

        I spied it on the chef’s smartly priced $50 five course tasting dinner. Our server said I couldn’t order it à la carte but Skeen, standing a few feet away at the kitchen pass-through, recognized me and said yes. I hope that means yes for you too. It’s my first taste of the night, not counting the warm home-baked bread – a doughy bacon and sage roll and decent mini-baguette. I bite into the hamachi, getting an unexpected salt and crunch. Luscious chunks of Japanese sea urchin ride on the rich fat fish belly with bits of grapefruit in citrus puddles all around. And yes, the whole briny package is surfing on a pork rind. I’m sitting with four friends – not feeling the pain of being five people sardined into a tiny round - as the uni platter comes my way again. I can’t quite believe it. My guy and I are the only urchin lovers in this crowd. And I am the inheritor.

Mullioned glass street view, upholstered wall above tweed banquette, cherry blossoms. Photo: Steven Richter

        But there’s lots more to love in this small storefront that stands out like a garden folly on a raggedy stretch of Eighth Avenue.  No sign is needed. The elegance of the black iron mullioned glass front signals something ambitious happening here. It’s definitely “done” inside, charmingly, with an Indian-look wallpapered corner, a spray of white orchids in silouette, upholstered walls above tweed banquettes that eat up sound, branches of cherry blossoms like an umbrella on the bar that seats nine and curls around a corner like a crooked smile. 

Mammoth shrimp cooked whole and super salty from the bar menu. Photo: Steven Richter

        Real estate funk may have slowed building uptown but it hasn’t popped the feeding bubble. I wanted to come as soon as I heard Ryan Skeen had landed but they weren’t taking reservations that first week. Now at 8 on a Tuesday, the staff seems a bit stretched but our server lingers to guide us over the menu with real pride. “The sepia is wonderful,” she says.  “Not enough people order it.”

Agnolotti under spring vegetables in carrot butter is evening special. Photo: Steven Richter

        Big heads-on prawns - juicy, fragrantly singed in a nest of papas fritas to dip in aioli – are a steal at $13 from the bar menu, though I wish they were less salty. Bar food, indeed.  “Yes, we love salt,” the chef admits, mimicking tossing a fistful into the pot. I would have been in heaven with the hefty $8 side of macaroni and cheese all to myself, but for arteries’ sake I was good and shared.  It’s yet another ritzy riff on that old classic: big blowsy pasta ears super rich with Gruyère, mimolette, Irish cheddar and browned crumbs. The evening’s special ricotta agnolotti lie hidden under leaves and slices of spring vegetables in a rich carrot butter.

Skeen sends out this wonderful lemony fresh toss of fennel and escarole. Photo: Steven Richter

        Our server is right about the braised sepia. It’s fabulous to pile on grilled baguette, an extra gift of the kitchen, along with a brilliant salad the five of us had bypassed:  fennel, escarole, kohlrabi with spice-roasted walnuts, Gala apple and pecorino, all crunch and vibrance in a Meyer lemon vinaigrette. My sturgeon, a mannered stilllife with beets and radish wheels, is delicious, cooked the way I like it.  Less successful is breaded and sliced quail on a nest of Leige salad, a Belgian toss of confit potato, haricots verts and herbed greens. All the thought and work that went into rabbit and ratatouille sausage with spaetzle gets lost in salty foam.

Impeccably-cooked sturgeon. I’ll forgive the mannered presentation. Photo: Steven Richter

        A deconstructed “cassoulet” combines cocoa beans with lush rare slices of lamb: loin and leg, belly confit and sausage. Asparagus and morels, flown in from Oregon, are glamour to elevate the chicken as a Gucci crocodile tote would spiff up a generic pants suit, though I give Skeen credit for frying the thigh and delivering a remarkably moist grilled breast. Marvelous cuts of beef rib, crusted cheek and root vegetables need to be scraped clean of the inedible over-reduced Burgundy glaze in his faux “pot au feu.”

Steven ordered this splendid seafood tagliatelle from the tasting menu, Photo: Steven Richter

        Given the extras, I don’t get many votes for dessert at our table - most of us needing to stretch our legs. Pressed to choose “just one” from a list of four, my friend chooses brioche doughnuts. These monsters in the shape of a sultan’s hat, with the hole fried separately and sitting on top, are simply everyday cake doughnuts on hormones. Is that a dipping sauce in the bowl along side, we wonder?  No, it’s cheesecake larded with meringue and white grapefruit, more booty from the kitchen, along with the cookie platter still warm from the oven. Next time I doubt I’ll be able to choose just one.

       Of course I want there to be a next time. I want to see 5 & Diamond inspire a spruce-up of the block. I want to find Skeen standing at the pass-through coaxing more Spring into the menu and wallowing in the riches of summer in nearby farms.  His history – leaving after raves at Irving Mill, in and out at Allen & Delancey
makes him sound mercurial. There’s already been a front-of-the-house shakeup here. So I’ll hope Skeen negotiates a deal he can live with that leaves him room to consult wherever and still come home to Harlem.

       “No way I’m going anywhere,” he told me. “It’s a good place to be.” People are coming down from Westchester and up from the Eastside, he says. “A lot of industry people live nearby. And we get the locals, of course. We have a 5:30 crowd with their kids. The place is full of strollers. I had to borrow three high chairs from a neighbor one night. We really love what’s going on in Harlem.”  Nevertheless, it would be politically correct to check ahead.

2072 Frederick Douglass Boulevard (Eighth Avenue) between 112th and 113th Streets. 646 684 4662. Dinner Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday 5:30 to 10 pm, till 11 pm Thursday. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 am to 4 pm.  Closed Monday.

Cafe Fiorello