I didn’t need a Renaissance or even the chance of a Bill sighting to bring me to Harlem. I started dropping into Sylvia’s for biscuit breakfasts and barbecued rib lunches in 1979 when it was just a skinny little luncheonette with half a dozen tables for two, long before it grew into an empire. Over the years I’ve covered jive nights with chicken and waffles and Big Band Nights with a $5 cover. “What’s new in Harlem?” friends ask and off we go. “Let’s go to Harlem,” our pals suggest tonight. I’m not a big cabaret fan. I like my food and entertainment sequentially. And Gospel Uptown has styled itself as “The Inspirational Place for Entertainment and Dining.”
That puts me off on three counts. Or don’t you find “inspirational” a little scary? Still, I could use a little “Healthful Soul Fusion Cuisine” or what the chef calls “Multi-Ethnic Nouvelle” in my life. That’s a renaissance all by itself. Also I might add, the publicist, a dear friend, has been pleading for me to check it out.
That’s my idea of crab cake, crunchy on the outside, crabby inside. Photo: Steven Richter
It’s 8 on Friday evening. The vast open space, at African Square on Seventh Avenue (Adam Clayton Powell Jr Boulevard), is almost deserted. But the stage is full and the amplified music of bass, guitar and a stylish warbler hits like a gale force wind as I open the door. “Put us in a nice quiet spot?” I beg the woman leading us to table. But in fact, there is no escaping the amps. There are no intimate alcoves in 1200 square feet of theatrical aspirations.
Usually the house trots out hot name groups on the weekends, Latino or jazz, gospel legends, hip hop and the blues, I’m informed. But it’s open mic tonight and way too loud in an empty room if, like us, you’re old enough for your senior subway pass and you came for dinner. Obviously, from the menu, the chef is a poet. The four of us are choosing from Preludes, Meditations (“for a natural and organic journey”) and Southern Fusion Inspirations. But with the first bite of his Louisiana crab cake, it’s clear Kenneth Collins is a graceful cook as well.
Chef Kenneth Collins dispenses leaves and sprouts with verve. Photo: Steven Richter
Forget about classic soul food’s joy of grease. Everything is clean and stylish, handsomely mounted with the currently essential leaves and sprouts, and affordable if not actually cheap, $16 to $24 for entrees. And what we’re eating is mostly delicious, especially that luxury of crab tendrils with a sweet potato and fennel salad alongside and lemon remoulade. A deep bowl of sesame noodles with mango, tomato, avocado, peanuts and a sesame chili dressing could be dinner.
Too bad the short ribs lacked time to finish cooking; love the potato salad. Photo: Steven Richter
Alas, the beer-braised short ribs in orange barbecue glaze with a fine three-potato salad (Yukon gold, Peruvian blue and sweet) need more cooking time to reach that falling-apart lushness. But the smoked duck roll with tamarind sauce and a hill of spiced calamari with tomatillo salsa are fine. We’re content with chicken, both fried with excellent spring vegetable slaw and barbecue-smoked with summer-sweet corn on the cob and crunchy haricots verts. Even the turkey loaf is surprisingly moist once I scrape off the too salty pan gravy.
Barbecued chicken – white meat only – with corn aside. Photo: Steven Richter
The truth is Collins has not let “healthful” dictate too prim a stance. His popular sweet potato ravioli in delicate won ton skins sit on chive butter and at brunch eggs Benedict come on braised pork belly with a lemon grass Hollandaise. The square cakey biscuits, $3 extra for four, are made with brown sugar. In one feeble attempt to cut calories, there are no chicken thighs coming out of his kitchen. It’s all white meat, but juicy, battered in panko and rice flour. And he’s pleased that customers savor their greens in the house garden salad with cucumber, apples, celery, mango, dried currents and feta cheese.
The room fills up a little to watch a trio of hotties conjure Michael. Photo: Steven Richter
The friendly, midriff-flaunting young Gidgets I assumed were groupies hanging around the “green room” turn out to be performers. Three of them in black leather and sneakers high step onto the stage, swiveling and spearing the air in an homage to Michael Jackson. It’s cute and fun and sexy, except maybe the grabbing the crotch part. By now, there’s an audience - dating couples, duos of stylishly dressed women – mostly drinking their $20 minimum, but some sharing an appetizer, the $8 ravioli or an $11 Angus burger with fries. We linger for Georgia peach parfait and apple pan dowdy with vanilla bean ice cream and a tuille.
As we pay the check and ask for a menu, the chef comes out to say hello, bringing the dessert cook, Elsa Garcia, with him. Seems I was recognized at the door. We’ve been there long enough to feel like family. Flushed and moist from their prodigious routine, the leatherette trio wave goodbye. I probably won’t be back because I’m always seeking the restaurant you can talk in without shouting or pawning a jewel for the cab fare. Still I love that there’s not a grain of irony in Gospel Uptown’s plan, but rather an innocence and sincerity that makes me hope it finds a loyal claque.