It’s not often I dine at three different restaurants helmed by the same chef in NYC, even with all the frequent turnover of chefs at restaurants. More often than not, a chef’s second home turns out to be not as good as the original place and once that happens, I probably don’t pay as much attention to what the chef as I would have. For chef JJ Johnson, however, I was very excited to check out his latest venture Henry at Life Hotel. Prior to visiting The Cecil (it is really a shame that excellent restaurant shockingly closed), I had not quite grasped what the “African diaspora” cuisine would mean, but my dining experience there was marvelous. Once The Cecil closed, JJ Johnson tried a temporary gig at Chefs Club (see my review here https://kenscale.com/2017/12/08/chefs-club/) where I brought my wife Jun and we both gave a thumbs up to the dishes we had. Jun was equally eager to check out what chef JJ was up to in his new journey. On our recent visit, the versatility of chef JJ’ culinary philosophy was still there and we had a very pleasant dinner.
If you have never dined at chef JJ’s restaurant before, you will be quite intrigued upon seeing the menu. The biggest strength with chef JJ has always been understanding traditions across different continents (the menu is not just focused on the African continent but also drawing from influences of African population’s migration, whether forced or voluntary, all across the world) and blending them into a coherent philosophy. I consider myself more of a purist and am typically wary of attempts by chefs on fusion, but chef JJ is a big exception. His kitchen prepares shrimp and pork dumplings with “Harlem curry” and Portuguese sausage, and while they were less impressive than the fantastic oxtail dumplings I’ve had during his residence at Chefs Club, you are still pressed to give credit to the ingenuity.
All the other dishes were a lot more successful. I loved the textural contrast between the pan-roasted scallops and braised pork, all sitting on top of Sea Island red pea stew that gives a distinctly earthy feel to the entire dish. The lighting on top of the table Jun and I were sitting at was rather lacking, so even Jun’s heroic efforts couldn’t salvage the photo of the bone-in beef short rib in its best form. I can say with confidence, though, that if you are at Henry for one dish, this is the one to get. The absolutely tender beef meat that came off the bone so effortlessly will bring a lot of pleasure to your taste bud; add millet that is served on the side, and I find myself a firm believer in African cuisine. For dessert, Jun couldn’t stop raving about the sweet potato pie with purple yam and coconut ice cream and I couldn’t agree more. It was a sensational dish that was melting in my mouth every time I reached my fork on the pie.
Getting a reservation at Henry wasn’t too difficult (perhaps because of its rather odd location at a hotel right nearby Korea Town), although the dining space started to fill up over time during our meal. There is full bar with a somewhat forgettable cocktail menu and a rather large wine list from all across the world. As noted above, the lighting could certainly be improved and the vibe was surprisingly sedated (I still remember how lively it was at the Chefs Club when Jun and I visited). That should not dissuade you from checking out Henry. There isn’t a restaurant in Manhattan quite like this confidently exploring the cuisine of often neglected parts of the world in culinary map.
KenScale: 8.25/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.25/10)
- Creativity: 8.5/10
- Execution: 8.5/10
- Ingredients: 8.0/10
- Flavor: 8.5/10
- Texture: 8.5/10
- Value: 8.0/10
Address: 19 West 31st Street, New York, NY 10001
Telephone: (212) 615-9910