November 7, 2016 | BITE: My Journal

Déjà vu: Sylvia’s Soul Food and Le Périgord


The late Sylvia Woods with daughter Bedelia in the restaurant's hot sauce print uniform at a holiday dinner.

          It was just coincidence that I stepped into the past for dinner twice this week. I brought new chums to Sylvia’s Soul Food, a treasure I first discovered the winter of 1979, when it was just a narrow little luncheonette. And a friend and I sat at a corner eating hors d’oeuvre variés as Le Périgord, a fixture of Sutton Place, celebrates its 50th anniversary.

Sylvia’s Family Ties


The 1979
New York article, photos by Charles Moretz, put Sylvia's Soul Food luncheonette on the culinary map.

          A jet-setting friend who occasionally nests here in town read in “Restaurants That Changed America” that my New York magazine article "Harlem on My Mind" had brought downtown uptown to Sylvia’s at a time when there was not much ZIP code mingling. “We have to go there,” he said. I’d last visited a Sunday Gospel brunch. Sylvia came by to say hello, and even the French tourists seemed less blasé. Sylvia died in July 2012. I spoke at a memorial service for her at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, telling how my editor was wary that we were sending readers to Harlem in 1979.


Sylvia's Soul empire grew and grew, soon taking over the entire block that had been mostly shabby bars.

          “Not to worry,” I told him. “All they have to do is get in a taxi, wait for the meter to drop and then say, 'Take me to Harlem.' They’ll get a warm welcome and great biscuits from Sylvia, and at the end, someone will drop a dime in the pay phone and order a service car to take them home.” The congregation roared and clapped.

          I can’t say I got the welcome I expected at Sylvia’s last week. “We can’t seat you till all your party has arrived,” the hostess said. I protested. I pleaded aging knees. She was not moved. I kept insisting. “We’re already four now.”


It will be biscuits at breakfast, corn bread at dinner, with Sylvia's preferred margarine. You can ask for butter.

          Overhearing the debate from a nearby table, a young man got up and suggested to the forbidding guardian that we be seated. There are four generations of the Woods family working now at Sylvia’s. He is De’Sean, one of the grandchildren.

          Seated, I struggled to focus my charges on the menu. I couldn’t get anyone to order a drink, not even an $11 cocktail. Not even a “Peach Tree Mimosa” or a “Waiting to Exhale.”


For me, the world famous combo of ribs and dark meat fried chicken with collards and fabulous macaroni.

          And then finally, we were six, mostly willing to order different dishes so we could share and taste. I’ll confess we were slow to order and the kitchen was slow to deliver. Then, the corn bread arrived, super sweet as always, with plastic cuplets of Fleischmann’s margarine. Nothing had changed. Sylvia believed margarine was healthier than butter. (Regulars know that you can ask for butter.)


Fish lovers can have Carolina-style catfish, shrimp, salmon croquettes, or grilled Atlantic Bar-B-Que salmon.

          Then came dinner plates, huge portions, larger than I remember, each with two sides. My non-meat-eating companions ordered “Grilled Atlantic Bar-B-Que Salmon.”

          Next to me, a flexitarian splurged on Sylvia’s Down Home Fried Chicken, white meat only ($1 extra). For me, only the wonderfully moist quarter of crunch-coated dark meat would do. I’d chosen the combo with Sylvia’s “World Famous Bar-B-Que Ribs” with sassy sauce. (The secret of her ribs was Coca Cola,” she’d confided in 1979.)


Pork chops come grilled, golden fried or smothered, with dirty rice if you wish.

          Ballooning sides also seemed bigger than I recalled. Collards around the table. And macaroni & cheese, wonderfully browned on top, not too salty, not too cheesy, actually, a lot like mom’s. My mom, Saralee. The candied yams, an extra side for the table to share, fell apart at the touch of a fork.


My friends let me choose dessert: peach cobbler and Southern-style banana pudding with vanilla wafers.

          A series of young women, third generation family, I guessed, stopped by to ask after our welfare. Dazed, mostly from macaroni excess, my flock let me choose dessert. Peach Cobbler and “Southern Style Banana Pudding.” The fish eaters merely nibbled. My friends packed a foil pan of mixed leftovers to go, including the last of the corn bread, for a homeless man they expected to find on the way home.


On the wall: a montage of Sylvia and Herbert Woods with their children and grandkids at various ages.

          At the door I kissed Sylvia’s daughter Crizette hello and goodbye. There was no need to put a dime (or even fifty cents) into a pay phone anymore. Outside on Lenox aka Malcolm X Boulevard, at the corner of Sylvia P. Woods Way, my pals had their phones poised to summon Uber. Then a cab came. And then another.

          Not all the locals are pleased with the new look of Harlem, but I imagine Sylvia – with Herbert and offspring at all ages in the homemade collage on the wall just over my shoulder – would be more than pleased. Margarine, banana pudding, French airs, Italian pasta, sushi and all.

328 Lenox Avenue (Malcolm X Boulevard) between Sylvia P. Woods Way and 126th Street. 212 996 0660. Monday to Saturday 8 am to 10:30 pm. Sunday 11 am to 8 pm.

***

Le Périgord Celebrates Its 50th Birthday



Le Périgord’s unchanging table: tablecloth, roses, salt and pepper shakers, butter pats, luscious thick brioche.

          Zarela and I sat in a corner banquette with a dèjà view of Le Périgord. Everything seemed familiar. The captains like surgeons carving the duck. The white tablecloth, the five pink roses, the salt and pepper shakers, the foil-wrapped butter pats. A bread server passed with cuts of pitifully shabby baguette and thick slices of marvelous brioche.


A pileup of entrees stay hot under stainless covers as the waiter does a last minute flourish on a side table.

          I believe that brioche came when Antoine Bouterin blew into the kitchen from Provence like a mistral in 1982. The chef streaked about the kitchen in sneakers, reforming, teaching, cajoling to get a settled team to do it his way. There was a smart nouvelle bounce at Le Périgord, I reported, as the chef revitalized the fusty menu, changing its doddering lineup of dreary classics before going off to open his own place.


On the ledge above our corner table: a spray of orchids.

          That’s why we’re here tonight. For the classics, dreary or not. This stalwart old timer is definitely not a magnet for foodies. Loyalists come here now, a hanging on of diplomats from the nearby United Nations, the eating-is-a-habit crowd and possibly a few softies who wouldn’t dream of abandoning so amiable a host as Georges Briguet.


The fricassee of escargots with wild mushrooms in hazelnut butter is an excellent choice.

          The range of starters, sixteen in all, mostly classic, suggests the vintage desire to please. Of course, I’m disappointed that Georges is not here tonight. Bouterin is long gone, of course. Joel Benjamin, formerly at Lutèce, is supposedly running the kitchen now. The waiter tells us Briguet’s son Christopher is in the kitchen, too.


I walk over to Le Buffet Froid to select my hors doeuvre: terrine, smoked salmon, shrimp, salads.

          But the display of hors d’oeuvre variés at the entrance is still a thrill. In my earliest days as a critic, I could never resist the generosity of a smorgasbord, especially this Gallic version. Here, you do not help yourself, but you can give the server a verbal guide. Nothing is seriously great, but still, I’m excited: smoked salmon and red peppercorns, celery remoulade (an old favorite one rarely encounters), perfectly cooked asparagus, a slice of terrine, shrimp in sauce Louis. Beets, chopped vegetables, potato salad.


Quenelles de brochet are a special this evening but, alas, less than special on overcooked risotto.

          I save half of everything for Zarela so I can savor her excellent snail fricassee with mushroom batons in hazelnut butter. She will have the evening’s special quenelle de brochet, we agree. The captain describes it in English, dumplings of pike, in case we’ve never heard of the dish before. I consider turbot à la croute, roast duck with seasonal fruits, and the chicken, because I see it comes with morilles (left over from spring?) and gratin dauphinoise – that decadence I loved so much I used to make it myself.


The traditional beef Bourguignon is all that it should be with carrots, onions and mushrooms.

          If it were only about pleasure and not history, I’d choose the calf’s liver. You rarely see calf’s liver on menus. Or kidneys with mustard sauce. I can’t recall the last time I noticed that option. I’d have them in memory of Craig Claiborne. Zarela casts a vote for the boeuf à la Bourguignonne. And, I think, yes, why not? I’ll tell you why not…It’s not a cinch to do a wonderful beef Bourguignon. The meat can be dry and tough when you want it to be moist and a little bit fatty.

          Well, this one’s beautiful to contemplate and not bad at all to eat. Just boring after a few bites. (I shouldn’t have asked for a second slice of brioche, but it is soooo good.)


My heart skips a beat with joy as Le Périgord’s ambitious pastry trolley rolls near.

 

          Alas, the quenelles are clumsy lumps on sticky rice glue – risotto, the waiter identifies it-- with a Nantua sauce. In the end, he takes both plates away, the quenelles barely dented, the beef still mostly intact, no questions asked.


The cake satisfies the need for something chocolate.

          I can always be comforted by the arrival of a rolling dessert cart (voiture de tentations). Desserts rarely roll anymore, unless you count the Stones. But here comes the trolley of sweets with all sorts of tarts and cakes and custards. The chocolate cake is an excellent choice. I ask for crème fraîche to go on the tarte Tatin. Visibly exasperated when I refuse his offer of whipped cream, the waiter sends off to the kitchen and some very firm crème arrives. For fifty years the customer has always been right, though it’s $75 now for the three course prix fixe.


It's not the best tarte tatin you'll ever have, but the waiter will summon
crème fraîche if you insist.

          Does Zarela feel as virtuous as I do? We have devoted an evening to saluting a very elderly aunt in a city that mostly celebrates the next new thing.

405 East 52nd Street. 212 755 6244. Lunch Monday through Friday noon to 3 pm. Dinner Monday to Sunday 5:30 to 9:45 pm.

***

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