Every Sunday, Sean and I tuck Liam into the stroller and spend time in the neighborhood. Harlem is well-known for its historical significance and its contemporary vibrant scene, but it seems like a new restaurant, boutique or cafe is opening every week — even living here, I can hardly keep up! Sunday afternoons in Harlem give us a chance to check out the latest events and local shops. We often have a little ritual: we stop for a cappuccino et pain au chocolat at Patisserie des Ambassades and end with a drink at Harlem Tavern in the early evening before stopping at the butcher to pick up a quick dinner of homemade Aussie meat pies and local grass-fed meat, poultry, and eggs for the coming week. I just love Sunday afternoons and look forward to them all week long!
Last Sunday we dropped by the first Harlem Food Festival, arranged by my neighbor Jessica, and housed in two empty lots on Frederick Douglass Blvd between W117 and W118th. She described it as “an open air food market showcasing new and established neighborhood culinary gems, as well as vendors selling handmade food and innovative gourmet products.” I first lived in Harlem nearly 15 years ago and returned to the neighborhood almost two years ago — today, the term ‘up-and-coming’ hardly seems to be sufficient to describe the energy, vitality, and diversity in modern day Harlem. This certainly extends to food, and in Harlem, the food scene is no longer focused solely on “modern soul cooking” (which is fantastic of course). It is also showing signs of its own interpretations of what is considered gourmet, or what I like to call “homemade and handmade in Harlem” in addition to attracting innovative gourmet vendors from the New York City area. What are some examples? Sean and I wandered through the Harlem Food Festival and here’s what we found…
First up, we had to sample some of the food. We started with “Jack’s Chedbred” which sells tasty flavor combinations of cornbread. Being Canadian, Sean and I knew we had to try the “maple and bacon” chedbred (maple syrup, bacon and sharp New York cheddar), which was moist, rich, and studded with fresh corn kernels (and Sean doesn’t even like cornbread, so the fact he liked it says a lot). We met Jack himself, who’s a lawyer-turned-cornbred maker, and we learned what Smorgasburg is (all the vendors seemed to be mentioning it), which is a Brooklyn Food & Flea market that pitches up every weekend, featuring stalls and kiosks by food trucks and chefs and gourmet entrepreneurs.
Next on our list was Parantha Alley, which showcases hot-off-the-grill paranthas to order. Parantha is an Indian concoction that my mother makes, so how could we not try it? Uncooked whole wheat roti dough is rolled out into a circle and then a small amount of stuffing, savory or sweet, is placed in the middle; then the sides of the dough are pulled up around the filling and the whole thing is rolled out flat again, then cooked on a grill. It really is a treat, and Parantha Alley offered interesting combinations of fillings, including their award-winning goat cheese, honey, and pecan parantha, which I must say, was fantastic. Hot off the pan, the coarse whole wheat roti, hot and buttery, was a lovely foil to the melting goat cheese, oozing honey, and nutty pecans inside. I love trying new flavor combinations that really surprise me, and this did not disappoint.
Finally, how could we attend a food festival in Harlem without having some jerk chicken? Elsie’s Caribbean Cafe Specials included 3-4 different types of plump, juicy chicken with crispy skin, and we especially liked the Brown Stew Chicken, which fell off the bone in big chunks. As we wandered around the festival, we met Joseph Riley of Land of Riley/Land Gourmet Pantry, a warm, cheery guy who finds and sells unusual gourmet foods like Chai Spice Nut Butter and Rosemary Salted Caramel Corn. I didn’t try anything, but it definitely piqued my interest, and I plan to visit his site for stocking stuffers this Christmas.
Liam woke up hungry so we strolled down Frederick Douglass Blvd to our Sunday spot, Patisserie des Ambassades for coffee, croissant, and pain au chocolat. In our view, it’s a definite go-to place if you’re seeking out an authentically good croissant in Manhattan. We’re also encouraged by the fact that the waitstaff speaks French. With deep orange hues and dark cherry wood with big open windows to the street, it’s cozy, welcoming, hip, and baby-friendly all at the same time. Contented, we continued our walk up, stopping at the Harlem Underground to browse the latest cool cat t-shirts with Harlem motifs, and past the Magic Johnson AMC movie theatre. Suddenly Sean spotted a new place called Serengeti Teas & Spices. Intrigued, we crossed the street and once inside, learned they only opened 5 weeks ago. Yes, we had just had coffee, but I couldn’t resist sampling their blend of Ethopian, Rwandan, and Zambian coffee that takes your classic French roast flavor profile to whole new level of depth and richness; our ebullient waiter with an infectious personality convinced me to drink it with a touch of honey (I drink all my coffee black) and it was like dark liquid gold; I could have that for dessert every night. Seriously. They brewed us up loose teas of vanilla Rooibos chai (for Sean) and chamomile (for me) by gently steeping them with a French press, and we sipped our way through another hour of hanging out and admiring all the loose teas, spices, and coffees whilst Liam fell asleep in the stroller again.
We decided to head home, passing the legendary Levain Bakery (yes, they have a location in Harlem, and yes, it’s always busy), famous in New York City and beyond for their unimaginably addictive–and massive–chocolate-walnut cookies (one cookie feeds 4 adults). We walked into our butcher, Harlem Shambles, picked up two chilli-cheese pies for dinner, along with some eggs, flank steak, and bacon. We headed home, relishing our Sunday in Harlem.