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As the undisputed capital of black America, Harlem holds its reputation as a longstanding microcosm of African America nationwide. And yet pocket communities of other ethnic groups stretch back even longer than Ben E. King’s sixties hit, “Spanish Harlem.” Besides that famed Nuyorican neighborhood, France plants its flag near the New York French American Charter School of West 120th Street, and the African diaspora flourishes up and down 116th. All of which lends an international flavor to uptown cuisine far beyond the preconceived notions of soul food one might expect.
Satisfying a jones for African cooking in particular means grappling with the diversity within the continent. No one speaks of “European food”—the wide range of cooking found on Italian, French and Spanish menus is a given. Africa, likewise, contains 54 different countries, and flavors span widely from the jollof rice of Nigeria to the couscous of Morocco to the fish stew of Angola. Our recent crawl of the African-owned Ponty Bistro (Senegal), Zoma (Ethiopia) and Safari (Somalia) restaurants highlights Harlem’s continent-wide collection of tastes.
Ponty Bistro 2375 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard “The technique of cooking is French, but the spices we’re using have to be all African,” says chef Ejhadji Cisse, co-owner—with cousin Cheikh Cisse—of Ponty Bistro. Located at the corner of 139th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, the Harlem outpost of this French-Senegalese restaurant opened in 2010 as an uptown branch of the original Ponty Bistro in downtown Gramercy (since closed). The Cisses hail from Dakar, Senegal, though culinary school and chef residencies took them through Paris before their arrival in the states in 1995. “I don’t want to say: alright, I’m African, I’m just getting African customers,” says Cisse. “I want everybody to come to my place, able to eat what we have and have the experience we have in here.” Specialties like braised branzino sea bass with sweet plantains (poisson braisé à la Guet Ndar) align with attractions like a late-night weekend DJ to make Ponty Bistro a staple of rapidly gentrifying Harlem.
Zoma 2084 Frederick Douglass Boulevard “Ethiopian dishes are largely vegetarian,” says restauranteur Henock Kejela, owner of Zoma (established in 2006). “And the others, the meat dishes, are braised dishes. Most Ethiopian food is eaten on a family-style platter with injera, which is the bread.” That spongy flatbread scoops collard greens, spicy chickpeas and lentils; other dishes include fish (zoma assa, assa tibs), beef (tibs wett, kitfo, and more) and chicken (like doro alitcha stew). As another Ethiopian signature, the tej honey wine is a must-taste. A decade ago, The New York Times described Zoma’s interior as “a sea of wobbly black tables set against sparsely adorned walls,” but the low-key, low-lit atmosphere only adds to the charm. Located at the corner of West 113th Street, the eatery’s proximity to Central Park allows diners to walk off their meals with panache.
Safari 219 West 116th Street Calling the patch of Harlem surrounding 116th Street a West African Chinatown would be trite for several reasons, and yet the greatest concentration of NYC immigrants from the continent’s left coast seem to have settled here. Still, the neighborhood nickname of “Little Senegal” ignores the heavy Somali presence evidenced by chef Shakib Farah’s two-year-old Safari. “Somali cuisine is pretty much a meat-eating society,” he says. “The food has to have aroma, so the spices and seasoning are very important: cinnamon, cardamom. That’s what makes it unique.” The roasted goat of hilib ari served with Basmati rice and basbaas sauce is a Safari favorite. (Speaking of sauce, Safari also produces its own hot sauce for sale.) Beef and chicken suqaar as well as a trio of steaks (including thinly sliced flank steak and grilled hanger steak) serve carnivorous diets that might find goat too adventurous. But a catch-of-the-day chef’s special—served in a homemade lime zest sauce and basbaas rub—ensures Safari covers all the bases.