The Cecil - Best New Restaurant in America - Harlem, NY December 30 2014
Eat out in America, particularly in high-end restaurants, and you tend to see the same people, eating the same dishes, and you start to take them for granted. Then you find a place like the Cecil and you wake up. Yes, its food was the most thrillingly unique tasted this year, loaded with flavors of the African diaspora – that trail of taste that moved from West Africa to India, the Caribbean to America to China, and then back again. But more remarkably, the Cecil has made a community restaurant in one of the most polarized places on earth. Very rich, very white grandees with $3 million condos go there, and so do middle-class blacks who have lived in Harlem for decades. Asian-American people eat there, and Hispanic people and grad students and he-men – everybody more or less. Go in, even on a Monday, and the place hums with happiness.
Much of this derives from the ubiquitous presence of its genial co-owner, Alexander Smalls, a white-bearded former opera singer with a deep, mellifluous voice. The rest comes from the great young chef Smalls enlisted to bring his vision to life: JJ Johnson, whose classical training provides the backbone for all the exotica. The oxtail filling in the dumplings wouldn’t be possible without veal stock and demi-glace; and the gossamer dough that wraps it isn’t something you just pick up overnight. And the melang of flavors is found no place else – from the bird’s-eye chili and Madagascar vanilla in the opulent feijoada, a Brazilian black-bean stew with merguez and oxtail, to the Chinese cinnamon scent of the fried guinea hen.
Both culinarily and culturally, the Cecil feels like a restaurant from an alternative universe, or possibly better future, a great melting pot of gumbo and good times. The Cecil has the unique distinction of creating not just a new kind of cooking but a new kind of culture. 210 West 118th Street, NY,NY; 212-866-1262.
-Review from Esquire Magazine 2014