November 7, 2005 | Ask Gael

How can you tell it's the new Harlem?

        A smartly perfect mojito and the deep-fried sage leaves in the fried calamari signal the renaissance at Melba’s. “Born, bred, and buttered in Harlem,” as Melba Wilson likes to put it, she’s come back uptown from stints at Rosa Mexicano and Windows on the World. When plans to reopen the old Minton’s with Drew Nieporent and Robert De Niro fizzled, she found this corner to do a place all her own. And here she is, hugging and bussing the air, as downtown fans join neighborhood locals in the sophisticated country parlor - tables and wainscoting painted black above colorful banquettes, with black chandeliers enclosed in modish lamp shades. A lush dab of short ribs on miniature cheddar-grits cakes, and wondrously meaty chicken wings launch dinner on a high. We like the mini-burgers and that fried calamari with chipotle mayo, too. Among the gently priced entrées, mostly recipes from Melba’s 93 year-old South Carolina grandmother, barbecued turkey meat loaf and the crusty macaroni with three cheeses stand out. Bland collard greens disappoint, but not the voluptuous yams or nicely greasy chili onion rings. Salads, billed as “healthy comfort” food, are laudable, but that’s not why we’re here. Melba’s riff on brunch begins this weekend.

300 W. 114th St. at Frederick Douglass Blvd. 212 864 7777