In 2007 a BBQ restaurant called Oklahoma Smoke opened, and then closed, on West 145th. It's a convenient thoroughfare between Manhattan and the Bronx — the gas station across the way is never hurting for customers — but a bleak-looking street for a casual stroll. I never did make my way back for the baked potato, smoked and then stuffed with a choice of BBQ chicken, beef, or pork.
The contours of the 'cue joint are still evident in Mountain Bird, which opened in late 2013, retaining the wider-than-deep dining room that now snugs 20 or so in a hodgepodge of seating arrangements. Our threesome was seated at a circular table perched close to the dessert display case; I had my eyes on the sticky toffee walnut fig cake ($4) even before the menus arrived. We resisted dessert until after a proper brunch, but there's no harm in your learning up front about the moistness of the cake, the restrained sweetness of the toffee, and the just-chewy-enough texture of the fig. To no surprise, the chef, Tokyo-born Kenichi Tajima, is a longtime veteran of Payard.
Though first trained in Japanese culinary technique, Tajima has devised a bill of fare more befitting a French roadside inn, if French roadside inns sell burgers these days. Shown below: a truffle-mornay-sauce-stuffed BBQ turkey burger with potato croquettes; smoked salmon eggs benedict with creamy spinach, tarragon béarnaise sauce, and roasted vegetables; and chicken schnitzel with shrimp bisque mac and cheese. The richness of the burger, the crispness of the croquettes and the schnitzel, the lightness of the mac and cheese, and the freshness of the spinach were each a delight. And a steal: Each brunch entree ($15) also included coffee or tea; a trio of mini-breads accompanied by vanilla-bean-speckled butter; and, in lieu of the usual salad, a warming cup of cauliflower soup.
When I return for dinner (sooner rather than later), the "head-to-toe" cassoulet sounds perfect for the season; it sports turkey sausage and bacon, chicken comb, duck leg and gizzard confit, and a fitting roster of onions, carrots, and beans. I've wanted to banish thoughts of that BBQ-stuffed baked potato; the odds are good.
Mountain Bird 231 West 145th St. (Seventh-Eighth Aves.), Manhattan 212-281-5752 www.MountainBirdNYC.com Closed Monday
Crystal-clear Limonade La Gazelle (the photo is of a full bottle, $2) would be welcome alternative to Vimto, and housemade sorrel and ginger drinks, served in many West African restaurants. For widest Stateside distribution, however, this Senegalese soft drink would need to offer a list of ingredients more complete than "pur sucre."
Adja Khady Food Distributor 243 West 116th St. (Adam Clayton Powell Junior-Frederick Douglass Blvds.), Manhattan 646-645-7505
"...capable de cuisiner et nettoyer...", that is, "Seeking a woman who can cook and clean..."; details follow. More than for the tenuous connection to things culinary, this flyer is noteworthy for being written in French and posted by the sidewalk. Like the recent arrival down the block of Mama Getzner, a fabric shop based in the Goutte d'Or, in the 18th arrondissement of Paris, it's another sign of growth in Manhattan's Little West Africa.
Jacob Restaurant, a soul food and salad bar of several years' standing, with two Harlem locations, this year spun off a full-service restaurant featuring the cuisine of the owner's native Senegal. Might newly opened Sweet Mama's follow a similar trajectory? This selection ($4.99 per pound) featured nothing more exotic than oxtail, in the company of collard greens, mac 'n' cheese, black-eyed peas, and candied yams. The owner held out hope, however, that if all goes well he might eventually serve some food like that back home, in Burkina Faso.
Accra is not associated with the bygone halal restaurant that once operated from this address; "no pork on my fork," the owner told me, is just a nod in Mookie's honor. This new West African steam-table restaurant is, however, a sibling to the Accra in Morris Heights, in the Bronx. The cuisine, said a counterman, is largely Ghanaian but also incorporates some dishes from Nigeria and Guinea; there's a little soul food, too. The motto "where the food sticks to your soul" might also beckon to a congregation a half-block to the west, at the Presbyterian Church of Ghana.
This sampler ($6, likely at an opening-day discount) included spicy lamb, a spicier stew of egushi (pumpkinseed) with spinach, fried plantains, and rice. The rice was very welcome in combination with the egushi, which was supplied in a generous scoop that's largely hidden here; it had more zing than you might think.
Accra Restaurant 2065 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. (123rd-124th Sts.), Manhattan 917-504-3098 Also at 2041 Davidson Ave. (at West Burnside Ave.), Morris Heights, Bronx 718-584-8500
"J" is for Jacob, the Senegalese owner of two soul food and salad bars. The awning of his latest enterprise proclaims "fine African & French cuisine," served a la carte in comparatively polished premises and not from a buffet, though a full printed menu is still to come.
Borokhe (baw-Row-hey, $10), one of three entrees on offer during a recent lunch, is a sauce feuille, a general name for leaf-based stews prepared in many West African countries. This recipe called for spinach and lamb, a little fish and peanut — though not so much peanut as you'd find in a mafe, also called sauce arichide or even "peanut butter stew" — and a generous dose of palm oil.
The other entrees available that afternoon included thiebou djeun, Senegal's famous fish-and-vegetable platter. To be precise, thiebou djeun rouge, flavored with tomato, though thiebou djeun blanc is prepared as well. In common with another restaurant that serves both versions, lunchtime entrees are offered in rotation; the red and the white never appear on the same day.
J. Restaurant Chez Asta 2479 Frederick Douglass Blvd. (132nd-133rd Sts.), Manhattan 212-862-3663
Kenny Heatley, the executive chef of Londel's Supper Club, soft-opened his new enterprise early this year on the site of the former Sherman's Bar B.Q. For the time being it's takeout only, though a stand-up counter may be added.
Heatley doesn't employ a smoker; he smokes "on the grill" and relies more on "marination and seasoning." Shown: the BBQ beef brisket sandwich ($8) on Texas toast, with cole slaw.
Harlem BBQ Company 2509 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. (145th-146th Sts.), Manhattan 212-690-0191
This tagline is one of several devised for the first brand of prepackaged biscuits in the late 1800s, not long after the merger that created the National Biscuit Company, later called Nabisco. Another, "Lest you forget, we say it yet, Uneeda Biscuit," I know only from printed accounts. "In rain or shine, just as fine," a reference to the product's moisture-resistant wrapping, has survived in at least one well-preserved painted ad.
The signage shown here was brought to light during construction of Columbia University's new Manhattanville campus, just north of 125th St., on the side of the building at dead center of the first photo. The surfaces to either side of the window column seem to contain different texts that may have been repainted several times, with variations. In the right-hand section (click for a closer look), a large-type "biscuit" and an equally dramatic question mark apparently succeeded a smaller "biscuit company."
As with many such signs, we may never be able to read the wording with precision. Is this a surviving example, at least in part, of the catchphrase "Do Uneeda Biscuit?" The question stands.
"[Do Uneeda] Biscuit?" Signage at 614 West 131st St. (Broadway-Riverside Dr.), Manhattan (As of 2014, no longer extant)
Unaccountably I have no photo for the bygone halal restaurant Mookies, a.k.a. No Pork on My Fork. In its stead I offer several near-rhyme restaurant mottos. It's a good bet that "no ham on my pan," "no swine on my mind," and "no pork in my fork," though opportunistic in name, are meant as homages, too. (The current occupant of the former Mookies premises has also made a nod in that restaurant's honor.)
At a glance the third of these, the motto of a food cart, seemed at odds with the photo menu. The actual bacon turns out to be turkey or beef, your choice, though there's no accounting for the contents of the stock images.
(This venue is closed.) A handful of counter seats notwithstanding, this Southern-style storefront is more for takeout or delivery, to "home, office and curbside." An entree with two sides and cornbread runs ten bucks, but at lunch or dinner most entrees are available with any one side for half that price. "Tanasia's sweet ham," shown with yellow rice, is sweetened thrice over with pineapple, honey, and — one was tucked under the bottommost slice — maraschino cherries.
Another $5 lunch special: smothered fried chicken and red rice.
Foot N' It 153B Lenox Ave. (117th-118th Sts.), Manhattan 646-590-1569
Many people are put off by the texture of okra. The Man Who Ate Everything, when composing an annotated list of his food phobias upon being appointed a food critic, classified it as a food he might eat "if starving on a desert island, but only if the refrigerator were filled with nothing but chutney, sea urchins, and falafel."
Though thickened by the namesake vegetable, this sauce gombo (lunch, $11), wasn't nearly as gooey as the bowl I remember from the former Florence's. At that beloved restaurant, the okra stew was downright mucilaginous; at Savane, I could raise a spoon to my lips without finding a trail of goo threading back down toward the bowl. Thanks also to fat chunks of lamb and a broad plate of white rice, I ate light at dinner.
This afternoon's chef hailed from the Ivory Coast, as does the owner, who tells me that he also employs chefs from Mali and Guinea. I don't yet know who cooks when.
La Savane 239 West 116th St. (Frederick Douglass-Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvds.), Manhattan 646-490-4644
From my archives, two photos of a showroom for kitchen-and-bath furnishings. This Harlem branch (to the trade only) shows off local color provided by Tats Cru murals. Though some have since been partially or fully covered by construction, the Sylvia's artwork is still in full view.
Davis & Warshow 251 West 154th St. (Adam Clayton Powell Junior Blvd.-Lenox Ave.), Manhattan 212-234-5100 www.DWNY.com
Fried chicken livers (lunch special, $8.95), not quite smothered in gravy and onions, would have been delicious enough all on their own. These, as it happened, were flanked by string beans that had been sauteed with something both calorie-laden and delicious. For a palate freshener: pickled beets.
Seen afresh as I was navigating the less-charted regions of my archives, the Dixie Drifter shuttered sometime between summer 2007 and autumn 2009. Flanking it, and now also shuttered, was the South Carolina Variety Store. A truck with Georgia plates has picked up the slack.
Dixie Drifter Grocery & Variety Formerly at 2425 Adam Clayton Powell Junior Blvd. (141st-142nd Sts.), Manhattan