Sean and I have dined at Harvist a couple of times in the last month. Officially known as “MIST’s Harvist”, the fine dining restaurant is the newest arrival to Harlem’s vibrant restaurant scene. Housed in an impressive modern arts and cultural center on W116th Street just off Lenox Avenue (Malcolm X Blvd), I’ve been walking by the MIST building for a year now, wondering what was happening under all the construction and scaffolding. MIST is self-described as “a fair trade social venture planned, programmed and built to share the authentic and diverse cultures of the African and Latino diaspora. Though culturally specific, the stories – whether told through food, film, dance, spoken word or music – are about universal themes that bind us all together.” Intriguing, right?
When one first walks into the place, there is an elegant concession stand that you’d find at an upscale movie theatre showing only independent films. There are three theaters that are currently hosting live performances of music and art. There is an airy, modern sports bar before one hits the main restaurant, Harvist, which is located right off the main lobby. Harvist “serves seasonal American cuisine with accents from North and South Carolina’s low country and special dishes influenced by the African and Latin diaspora.” They haven’t yet launched formally, but instead, are in the midst of a soft launch, to get a sense of what Harlem patrons like, and to give their kitchen and waitstaff an opportunity to smooth out wrinkles during service.
One thing is certain, the ambiance and the mood of folks at MIST is welcoming and warm. Sean and I noticed it right away. You know you’re in Harlem, but you get a sense that it’s modern, current day Harlem. I love seeing folks of all walks of life and ages enjoying themselves in the same space. We poked around, checking out the MIST environs, and were welcomed with “hellos” and “how are you’s” from staff and patrons alike. As soon as we were seated for dinner, a tall, young waiter poured our water and caught me a bit by surprise when he said graciously, “I’m so glad you’ve come to have dinner with us tonight.” You don’t hear quite that sentiment too often.
First up, Sean ordered the Sambal BBQ chicken wings. Sambal is a popular Asian condiment that is basically a chilli sauce, often made with a variety of different hot chilli peppers and especially popular in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. I’m not a big chicken wings fan like Sean, but must admit, these were very good. Generously marinated and spiced, the wings were hearty — thick and sticky on the outside, and meaty and juicy on the inside; the spiciness was underscored by a rich sweetness with just the right balance. The texture was memorable thanks to a nice crunch to the wings, reminiscent of the crunch you get from a good Sunday dinner buttermilk fried chicken.
For the main course, I ordered one of Harvist’s more popular entrees — Prawn and Grits — prawns served with organic grits, braised greens, and chicken fried bacon. The chicken fried bacon caught my attention on the menu, but when the dish arrived in a dramatically sloped porcelain bowl, I found the bacon disappointingly lukewarm and limp. The rest of the dish was great and I would order it again, sans the chicken fried bacon. Plump, fresh prawns sat on a bed of braised collard greens and creamy grits, topped with thin, crisp slivers of fried onions. Each bite had a great balance of flavors, and the portion was neither too big nor too small. Just like the wings, I welcomed the textures of this dish — the firmness of the prawns, the pillowy polenta, and the crispness of the fried onions were spot on.
Sean’s main course was the San Gabriel Skirt Steak served with sauteed mushrooms, cipollini onions, and radish. This, as you can see above, was served as is, more in keeping with European plating than a classic American preparation with hefty greens and potatoes on the plate. Medium-rare, the steak was robust and flavorful, and a nice foil to the cipollini onions in particular. The only thing we both noticed is Harvist needs to work on plating its dishes. Once again, there was nothing wrong with the size of the portion, it was neither too big nor too small, but the way the steak was plated off to one side, made one feel like something was missing — in other words, the plating didn’t do justice to how the dish actually tasted.
And finally, dessert. As with all soul food or good Southern cooking, those from the deep American South sure know their desserts! Short but interesting, the menu is eye-catching, with offerings as different as butternut squash cheesecake to as familiar as a vanilla sea salted fudge brownie. Sean loves red velvet cupcakes, so I knew exactly what he would order — their signature Red Velvet Soufflé…
As Sean sunk his spoon into the steaming burgundy dough of the soufflé, the flavor was nice, not overly saccharine, but somehow, something was missing. The cream cheese semi freddo and candied pecans were sitting at the opposite end of the oblong dessert plate, so I suggested Sean combine the three. Et voila! The whole thing worked really well together, the hot red velvet instantly melted the semifreddo that oozed quickly, and the candied pecan provided the right intensity of sweet nutty texture.
We returned to Harvist when my mom visited a couple of weeks ago, and had a similarly good experience — some hits and misses, but mostly hits. The waitstaff is definitely green, they’re really trying hard, but at least 2 or 3 of them who served us didn’t have a full grasp of the menu or individual ingredients. Our waitress was so warm and friendly, that it was almost forgivable the number of times she checked on us to see if everything was “ok” — she must have come by 5 times a course, to the point that we found it disruptive to our dinnertime conversation. However, I applaud their efforts, and with some basic waitstaff training, if Harvist has a will, there is a way. Management seems very keen, the entire staff appears enthusiastic and up for the challenge, and we wish them well. We’ll certainly be back to Harvist. It’s nice to have a new fine dining option just a couple of blocks away from our front door.
Disclaimer: Big Apple Curry has neither ties to Harvist/MIST nor is in the business of writing restaurant reviews for compensation or other benefits. We simply share our musings as Harlem residents as part of our “Big Apple Life” series on this blog.