Quiet as it is not kept, there are still areas of Harlem being developed. Housing, goods and services and more are slowly moving into areas previously not served. The change is a little tenuous at times and not easily seen or known, save for some city work permits posted on the windows, but ultimately these new businesses’ fates are in your hands. You decide.
One of these up-and-coming areas for new goods and services is Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard (aka Seventh Avenue) above 135th Street. Growing up on 147th and Lenox Avenue, I had very few places to dine or take out other than the requisit fast-food chains. Sherman’s was my favorite (RIP), and I enjoyed Flash Inn on 155th for family dinner (RIP) and holiday pies and sweets from the original Make My Cake at the end of Striver’s Row.
So when you have seasoned chefs and restaurateurs open a second location of their successful Gramercy Park eatery in this burgeoning area, you must applaud their pioneering spirit by patronizing, supporting and offering your necessary thoughtful feedback so they can thrive with the growing neighborhood. It’s not an easy effort, rather an essential one.
I was invited by owners, executive chefs and cousins Cisse and Cheikh to the new Harlem location of Ponty Bistro (@PontyBistro, 144 W. 139th St., 212-234-6474, www.pontybistroharlem.com) to sample their African fusion food, blending Senegal and West African flavors with French and Mediterranean cookery.
The simply designed restaurant sitting on the southeast corner of 139th gives all the authenticity of a modern bistro—a white marble bar, communal and cafe tables, dark wood accents and low lighting. The wall of windows helps the railroad-style space, though a half frost on the lower part of the windows would refocus the view on the stunning vista that is Harlem.
The menu reads like your favorite French bistro but turned on its ear. There is plenty to mention from all parts of the menu. From the appetizers, bistro standard escargot made me happy. The calabash (butternut squash) soup is a must-try as we move into cooler fall weather, and the artichoke salad gripped my palate with haricot vert, shaved Parmesan and truffle vinaigrette. From their mussels menu (appetizer or entree), I tried the Africana with a delicious coconut milk-based spiced sauce: a little salty, but great flavor.
For entrees, try something simple like their Ponty burger, made with lamb, caramelized onions, tomato confit and gruyere cheese, and served with fries. I was swooning over the wild mushroom risotto with asparagus, Parmesan and truffle oil. It was perfectly runny, al dente arborio rice fortified with mushrooms and fragrant truffle oil.
The grilled hanger steak with Yukon gold mashed potatoes, sauteed spinach and bordelaise sauce, cooked to my requested temperature of medium-rare, was on point. (SCHOP! Tip: When ordering steak, always tell your server your temperature preference. Politely send it back if it is not met.) The mashed potatoes transported me back to the 1980s—the beginning of my love affair with food. They were buttery, smooth but with faint pieces of tender potato. The fresh sauteed baby spinach was a boon!
There is a nice list of bistro standard desserts like profiteroles, creme brulee and chocolate mousse. While I enjoyed the Nutella and banana crepe with vanilla ice cream, the crepe itself could use a more delicate hand. I am remiss in trying the tarte tatin—always a great litmus test for a French bistro.
I enjoyed an assortment of wines with each of my courses, from an Australian Shiraz, ending with a Gewurztraminer from South Africa. The premium spirit cocktail list offers interesting drinks, though I found them, as well as some of the appetizers, to be a little too sweet for my taste.
There is more work and improvement that remains to be done at Ponty Bistro, but that is the beauty of being a patron of this pioneering restaurant. You can politely demand quality service, offer thoughtful feedback and ultimately show your support through your wallet. This is the relationship that develops successful entrepreneurship and community relations. Be a part of the change.
Harlem Harvest Festival
Come check me out at the Harlem Harvest Festival this Saturday, Oct. 11 on St. Nicholas Avenue between 116th and 117th streets as I judge the semi-finalists of the cook-off and bake-off. There is plenty to do, eat and see for kids and adults alike!
Happy eating and thanks for reading!
Kysha Harris is a food writer, culinary producer, consultant and owner of SCHOP!, a personalized food service offering weekly and in-home entertaining packages. Questions? Comments? Requests? Feedback? Invitations? Email her at kysha@iSCHOP.com, follow her on Twitter and Instagram @SCHOPgirl or on Facebook www.facebook.com/SCHOPnyc. For even more recipes, tips and food musings subscribe to her blog at www.talkingSCHOP.wordpress.com.