Despite its rich diversity, New York City dining scene still lacks restaurants inspired by African influences, at least outside of Harlem and Bronx areas. When I visited a restaurant in Harlem called The Cecil a few years ago, I was genuinely impressed with the versatility of the kitchen’s dishes based on the theme of African diaspora, mixing up not just African but also American and Asian influences for a soulful and very satisfying meal. Unfortunately, The Cecil shuttered later to my shock (I was really hoping to make a revisit should I have any occasion to visit upper Manhattan in the near future), and the executive chef JJ Johnson ended up at Chefs Club, a dining space with rotating chefs in residence for a few months’ gigs. His tenure at Chefs Club has quickly gained popularity, and naturally I wanted to see if I can experience the same magic from The Cecil and took my wife Jun there on a recent Saturday evening. Overall, I was still very pleased with the “expressive” cooking coming out from the kitchen.
If you look at the menu, you are likely to be at first get confused, with a dish with components like afro spiced lamb suya (a type of kebab from West Africa) and house-made kimchi (!) on top of a single plate. Where did all this idea come from? It’s really the free-flowing minds of chef Johnson and his kitchen staffs who are not afraid to test culinary boundaries. And, in most cases, they worked to great effect. The aforementioned suya (which you can eat in a wrap along with za’atar labne and kimchi) was a fantastic small bite. I still remember how great the oxtail dumplings were at The Cecil, and while the one here (this time combined with Harlem curry and tarot root) was not as ground-breaking as last time, the creamy sensation was still great.
For main dishes, Jun and I gave a thumbs up to each different item, her raving about the jerk tamarind glazed chicken with soy braised greens, and I marveling at the rich complexity of flavor coming from the stew of roasted cod accompanied by shrimp and crab, okra and celery root, and Chinese chicken sausage. I was slightly put off by the texture of the jerk chicken’s breast, but agreed with Jun that the accompanying soy braised greens (a type of kale), which their hearty feel, were just perfect for the chicken. After all the great savory dishes we had from the evening, the dessert turned out to be somewhat pedestrian, with a plantain donut with milk chocolate that wasn’t bad but probably a little bit too carby for both of us. In any event, Jun walked out of the restaurant very satisfied with what she had just eaten, and that’s all that matters for me.
Getting a reservation at Chefs Club wasn’t too difficult when I booked a couple of weeks in advance, but the dining space fills up quickly and will likely be full going forward with a very favorable New York Times article back in November that featured Chef Johnson. There is full bar with some interesting cocktail options. I can see that even the décor and atmosphere of the space seems to have caught up with the fun and playful cooking, with 90s hip-hops coming out from the speaker and the pink “JJ” neon sign greeting the diners. I don’t know how Chef Johnson will stick around (according to New York Times, he’s planning a new restaurant group), but certainly his gig at Chefs Club is something not to be missed while he’s still helming the kitchen.
- Creativity: 9.0/10
- Execution: 8.5/10
- Ingredient: 8.0/10
- Flavor: 8.5/10
- Texture: 8.5/10
- Value: 8.0/10
Address: 275 Mulberry Street, New York, NY 10012
Telephone: (212) 941-1100