Good fun in downtown and uptown New York


This article is also published in the Financial Times

As customers use restaurants for a variety of different purposes – to do business, to meet friends or even to propose marriage – so do those who work in them.

Their most immediate end is, of course, financial, and I hear that, even before the extra-busy holiday season, waiters in London and New York are currently earning very good money.

But there are more subliminal, more professional desires underlying career choices in the hospitality business, the most ambitious of which is that while working as part of a team under constant pressure a friendship will be struck up based on shared goals that will allow general managers, sous chefs, waiters and sommeliers to move on to set up on their own.

This phenomenon tends to happen most frequently in the more respected businesses and Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, which now employs over 3,500, has frequently witnessed this ‘mixed blessing’ – of losing good staff but having new restaurants to enjoy, as Meyer generously puts it – on numerous occasions.

But the recent openings of Huertas downtown and The Cecil in Harlem by ‘alumni’ of his restaurants demonstrate how very different restaurants can emerge from the same melting pot.

Huertas, a market garden in Spanish, takes its initial inspiration from Jonah Miller (pictured here by Nancy Borowick), 27 and executive chef, who studied Spanish before cooking and rising to become sous chef at Maialino, the Italian trattoria overlooking Gramercy Park. His enthusiasm for the pintxos bars and restaurants of the Basque country subsequently inspired Nate Adler, 25 and now Huertas’s GM, to join him after Adler’s stint a few blocks north at Blue Smoke.

Their ambition, for a bar at the front with a more sedate restaurant in the rear, became a reality after they took over a narrow building once a hardware store. An intervening period as a pizza restaurant means that somewhat incongruously there is an oven directly behind the bar in front of which stands a lanky barman in a bright red corduroy jacket.

Other twists on the original format are that rather than a large display of pinxtos by the bar, the waiters come to the table with trays of them from which the customer help themselves in the style of a dim-sum restaurant with the order jotted down on a piece of paper. And on Tuesday night all pinxtos are just one dollar each with one customer, I heard, managing to eat a record 43.

Miller stands by the open kitchen full of young, enthusiastic cooks, in an area that exudes that warm aroma of garlic, and orchestrates a series of exciting dishes: steamed percebes (goose barnacles); slices of chorizo sausage wrapped in pickled carrot; huertas rotos (thin, crisp potato strands coated in chorizo and topped with a poached egg); skewers of anchovy and olives; and a main course of grilled leg of lamb that was outshone by the accompanying bowl of diced lamb sausage with chickpeas and a creamy salsa verde.

Huertas is fun, notable for the energy, enthusiasm and humility of the team Miller and Adler have assembled, including our young French waitress, who doubles as a xylophone player, and, most excitingly, for what this duo may go on to accomplish together in the future.

Over at The Cecil, Julia Collins, who also began her career at Maialino, is now general manager, having been joined by Paula Tucker as the service manager after her stint at Jazz Standard, USHG’s jazz club below Blue Smoke, and together they form the smiling management team in this latest manifestation of Harlem Jazz Enterprises. This company was originally founded by businessman Richard Parsons, and is the custodian of the renowned Minton’s Jazz Club next door, where all the jazz greats once played and a soulful painting of Billie Holliday hangs above the stage.

The driving force behind The Cecil’s menu is Alexander Smalls, who once trained as an opera singer in London and Paris, and who has now decided to write a menu with chef Joseph 'JJ' Johnson that I found highly original. Proud of their heritage and not wishing to feel at all constrained, this menu seeks inspiration from the ‘African Diaspora’: wherever Africans have travelled, worked and absorbed culinary traditions – the Caribbean, the southern states, Asia or India – is ripe for inspiration. Tucker said with pride that she has never before seen a kitchen where a grill is next to a wok station.

The result is a series of dishes that range from the excellent to somewhat hefty. Into the former category fell a classic salad of collard greens with spiced cashews and coconut dressing; oxtail dumplings with green apple curry and crisp taro root; and brisket and eggs, a dish of fried rice, duck egg, hoisin sauce with slices of well-cooked brisket on the side. Less impressive were their version of egg foo young and a roti pizza topped with oxtail and aged Cheddar.

This is a minor quibble because what Smalls, Johnson, Miller and Tucker have established is a restaurant with a great sense of place and one where everyone in a restaurant appears to be having a whole lot of fun.

Huertas  107 1st Avenue, New York 10003; tel +1 212 228 4490

The Cecil  210 West Street 118th Street, Harlem, New York; tel +1 212 866 1262