BLVD Bistro: Saving Our Soul
The existential lightness of being BLVD Bistro biscuits. Sugarcane butter alongside.
Would you rush to Harlem for an ethereal biscuit? Would you hop on a train or pile into a cab for a feather-light biscuit, salty, crumbling in your fingers and maybe some shrimp and grits that will still haunt you next morning at breakfast?
There’s a lot of heat on Lenox Avenue, otherwise known as Malcolm X Blvd. It started eons ago with Sylvia’s Soul Food of course. And the temperature soared when the downtown crowd rediscovered Marcus Samuelsson at Red Rooster with his own personal riff on soul.
Pin lights outline the small outdoor patio, banked with snow.
But my friends and I are drawn a few blocks below stardom to BLVD Bistro on the corner of 122nd Street. I don’t like to admit the Times got there first but that’s a fact. And it wasn’t even a rave. It was a little love pat with an asterisk. “BLVD Bistro will not astound anyone but it will satisfy everyone, and sometimes that’s more than enough,” was how Julia Moskin summed it up. That very calibrated nod put it on my list.
Chef Carlos Swepson is as curious about us as we are about him.
Maybe we’re more easily charmed. My driver drops me at an ice-free spot on Lenox and I follow the black wrought iron fence around the corner to the open gate, down steep steps into the snow-covered brick patio of a historic brownstone that has yet to be developed. What you see inside is all there is. Eight tables. A booth. Just 36 seats, counting three at the counter where Chef-owner Carlos Swepson in his embroidered white tunic, is taking a breather.
He started cooking at five in his grandmother’s Mississippi farm kitchen.
He learned his first cooking tricks from French cookbooks in his grandmother’s farm kitchen in Mississippi. He names Patrick Clark, first at Odeon, then at Tavern-on-the-Green, as an influence and inspiration. After culinary school, he interned with Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Jo Jo and spent seven years at The Fitzpatrick and then Soho House. But he dreams of franchising his BLVD Bistro concept. “Crafted American Soul.” It’s about using the best ingredients – pan-frying organic chicken to order, firing the macaroni on command. Using only White Lily Flour from Tennessee for the biscuits. “Taking it up a notch.”
A roster of Harlem heroes are collected on the handmade poster behind us
The four of us settle at one end of a communal eight with tall stools in the window. Behind me is a hand-made statement of black pride. “Our crown has already been bought and paid for,” it says. “ All we have to do is wear it.” There is no serious booze. But the license allows for wine and beer, after-dinner Port and cocktails mixed with prosecco, ale or hard cider. My sangria is not too sweet.
Since there’s no hard booze, cocktails are made with wine, beer or hard cider, like sangria.
“I’ll be bringing your biscuits soon,” the waitress confides with a wide smile, as if she has a secret. And indeed, she’s back soon enough with a pregnant red and white checked napkin tucked into a basket. I unwrap the cocoon. Biscuits. Just out of the oven. The secret is that I’ve never had biscuits so ethereal. The four of us are mooing and clucking because none of us have ever tasted anything like this delicate, flaky, buttery buttermilk and flour fluff. No need for the Louisiana cane sugar butter mix in that little dish alongside. But I have to try it. It quickly disappears.
We’re sharing everything – chicken, ribs, grits, macaroni, okra -- and it arrives all at once
“Should we ask for more biscuits?” I ask after a stretch of time waiting for our order. But at just that moment of desire and indecision, we are surrounded by plates: spare ribs, fried chicken – both with a different duo of sides -- a quartet of fried shrimp on grits, the mac-n-cheese with bacon. “Be careful, the pan is hot.” A waiter tries to find room for the black-eyed peas with andouille sausage (an inspired combination) in a small black iron skillet. “It’s hot. Don’t touch.”
The thick fried cornmeal girdle on the okra, slips right off, but it’s delicious anyway.
A friend moves the okra -- fried whole, “watch out, hot”-- to a spot between us on my right to protect my working lefty. They are whole, wrapped in a cornmeal crust, and served with a spicy Creole ketchup (for $9, there could be a few more) .
These are fall-off-the-bone St Louis style ribs, not my favorite but maybe yours.
We share everything as we always do. St. Louis ribs slow-cooked and caramelized, fall-off-the-bone- style, are not my favorite style of ribs. The whipped sweet potatoes alongside are very sweet, the cole- slaw very creamy. Smoked turkey collards, very sweet too.
The chef pan-fries organic chicken crusty to orde, serving it with collards and potato salad.
But the thick battered chicken, pan-fried to order (just two pieces), is splendid. Selfishly, I take the leg and a tablespoon of very good potato salad, then cut the breast in three for my companions focused elsewhere. It is the rich buttered grits with grilled shrimp that has their attention. That’s salty, but not so salty to keep each of us from just one more spoonful.
The richer the grits, the harder we fall, even though these are a bit too salty.
Are there really seven cheese layering the long spiral macaroni curlicues in an enamel-ware baking dish, as the menu claims? Could be I’ll attest to its lush cheesiness – it’s creamy but not too. Yes, there are patches of bacon on top and grated Parmesan, but how did it get so chewy and crusty on top? (I ask. That’s what happens, it seems, when you blast it for eight minutes in a 500-degree oven.)
This homey banana bread pudding is topped with Hudson Valley bourbon pecan ice cream.
Banana bread pudding topped with bourbon pecan ice cream and the apple cobbler with cinnamon are homey and warm, but I’d like them both less homey – the banana less soggy, the apples more firm and less sweet. Not that it matters at this point, I’ll be back for the biscuits anyway. I might try them in fried chicken sliders with cheddar cheese. Or I’ll persuade friends to join me for brunch. Citizen critics online are high on the brunch.
I can’t ever resist cobbler but these apples could be firmer and more tart. A little lemon, maybe.
Still, I worry about Chef Swepson. Granted it was a frigid Tuesday the night we stopped by. That might explain why the empty seats. To make a living with 36 seats requires constant turnover. I suggested that to the chef and he didn’t respond. He just smiled beatifically. Speaking to writer Tyrus Rochell Townsend for Jet magazine, Swepson explained his thinking, that he was deliberate in choosing Harlem for his Crafted American Soul Food. “It was between two cities: Newark and Harlem.” Swepson is quoted. “It had to be a location where people got it. These two black cities embody the concept I was aiming to achieve.”
Black chefs created American cooking, Swepson suggested. “After slavery, outside of the French culture, all of the chefs were black and it was not a glamorized job. We fed America and always serviced the most important people in the country.”
I read that and was reminded of the anonymous black chefs in the kitchen of The Coach House, domain of the perfectionist restaurateur Leon Lianides. Beloved by both James Beard and Craig Claiborne, it was in the townhouse on Waverly Place where Babbo is now. Occasionally one of the checks might peer into the dining room. And it’s true, I never thought to ask for his name. That’s what Carlos Swepson is thinking, as he contemplates a power move.
239 Malcolm X Boulevard (Lenox Avenue) on the SW corner of 122nd Street. 212 678 6200. Monday through Friday 5 to 11 pm. Saturday brunch 11 a to 4 pm. Dinner 5:30 to 11 pm. Sunday 10 am to 6 pm.
Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.
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