HARLEM (67 Richmond East, at Church, 416-368-1920) Complete dinners for $50 per person (lunches $22), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $16/$10. Open Tuesday to Thursday 11 am to 10 pm, Friday and Saturday 11 am to 11:30 pm; bar Friday and Saturday to close. Closed Sunday, Monday, holidays. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN
Carl Cassell certainly knows how to throw a party. As the owner of Irie Food Joint (see Recently Reviewed, page 34), he’s inherited the late, lamented Bamboo’s intoxicating synthesis of laid-back reggae riddims, relaxed island vibe and Caribbean fusion cuisine that made the former Queen West warehouse legendary, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale.
Along with partner Carl Allen, he’s now turned his attention to recreating an uptown New York speakeasy circa the Roaring 20s in the space that housed Greg Couillard’s Sarkis back in the 90s and more recently sex club Wicked.
The peep-holes and built-in beds upstairs have been ripped out so the large, open expanse can now host corporate shindigs. Downstairs, the much smaller dining room is more intimate though poorly laid out and equipped with the fugliest barstools in town. Think Alien Vs Predator by way of a chiropractor’s office.
As expected, chef Anthony Mair’s dinner card includes soul food classics like Southern fried chicken ($15.95), but also ventures to New Orleans via blackened salmon with seafood etouffee sauce ($19.95) and further south with jerked meatloaf ($15.95/$10 lunch).
A starter labelled Catfish Lafayette ($8.95) turns out to be unexpectedly tender nuggets of flaky fish in a peppery sweet ’n’ sour sauce. A dino-sized threesome of beefy baby back ribs ($9.95) look like they could have escaped from the ROM, their deliciously messy sauce laced with bourbon. Paired with lunch chef Ange McClusky’s (ex-Bonjour Brioche) magnificent cornbread ($3.50/$3), they’re almost a meal in themselves.
Generously portioned mains like Harlem Jambalaya ($18.95) is like a creole paella, an impressive mound of paprika-spiked basmati thick with plump butterflied shrimp, a scallop or two and spicy chorizo.
Slow-roasted pork hocks ($16.95) recall oxtail, their sweet, succulent meat surrounded by a gorgeous layer of fat. We side them with old-school mac ’n’ cheese ($4.50) and tasty collard greens ($5.95) stewed Jamaican-stylee in coconut cream.
At lunch, the room’s physical limitations are even more apparent as a lineup at the door patiently waits for occupied tables built for four but currently all seating two. The turnover’s quick, though, and soon we’re tucking into a daily special of curried pork pot pie ($10), a delish near-tourtière jumped up with slivered garlic and minced chilies.
Amply portioned, braised lamb shank ($12) over root veggies and rice goes one better by introducing East Indian spicing into the kitchen’s delicious multiculti mix. Sandwiches also deserve applause, especially Harlem’s eponymous triple-decker ($10) stacked with Black Forest ham, mild Emmenthal, buttery guacamole and gently jerked chicken salad on grilled challah sided with mesclun in pomegranate vinaigrette.
Though the room is still wanting, Harlem gets just about everything else right. Servers are convivial and attentive, an upbeat soundtrack of Prince and Motown makes for perfect dinner music, and both the lunch and suppertime cards are as imaginative as they are attractively priced. Once its physical defects are corrected, Harlem could become the best soul food joint to hit Toronto since the long-defunct Underground Railroad.