Compos3d by: Tania
3. Harlem bound. Life gets busy, and sometimes even a bi-weekly dining event is difficult to fit in. This past rainy Friday, we decided an after work quick trip to Harlem on the uptown 3 fit the bill. Joining us this week was Sarah, a guest that is so much like family, you can hardly call her a guest at all (and that is the highest of compliments). Bonnie and I have known Sarah for many years, Bonnie first in San Francisco, and then myself in New York. Sarah has a bun in the oven, so I guess you can say that we had two guests!
We met on the platform at 14th Street and 7th Avenue, and boarded the train at 6:33pm. In the blink of an eye, allowing just a moderate amount of catching up, we arrived at 148th and Lenox Avenue right at dusk – Hamilton Heights. This was not the Harlem that I usually have in mind – the Apollo Theatre and the stores of 125th street (where I would sometimes shop with my teenage Big Brothers/Big Sisters little sister, trying to convince her out of buying underpants that were far too scandalous).
The streets were wide and filled with brownstones, beauty salons, barbers and community centers. It was immediately clear that this was a place where people took pride in their neighbourhood. Beds of flowers lined the sidewalks and music was audible on most blocks – even the abandoned brownstones had a sense of dignity. A place for families, a place for community and I imagine a place for some fabulous gossip in those beauty salons.
What Hamilton Heights was not a place for however, was a sit down restaurant. We were tempted by some of the seafood take-out and soul food buffets (I bet they are amazing) – but 1) it was cold and raining and we wanted to sit and 2) we have seen one too many ‘shame on you’ segments with a black light and a buffet (and I would say that about any buffet in any city, in any state, in any country in the world). We continued to walk west through the neighbourhood, winding through the streets – past Frederick Douglass Blvd, St. Nicholas Ave. and Amsterdam.
After a good deal of walking and a somewhat unsettling encounter with an intoxicated man in need of a belt, we eventually asked what appeared to be a college student (wearing spectacles and carrying take-out) for a recommendation. He pointed us in the direction of Broadway. As we walked, the change in the neighbourhood and the clash of its inhabitants, became more distinct. We arrived at The Harlem Public House, which looked decidedly more college town bar than Harlem dining establishment. While we were immediately hesitant, we decided to stick with the recommendation and approached the ski cap wearing door girl with a overwhelming sense of being underwhelmed. By some divine act of intervention, the fan in their kitchen had broken, and they were not serving food…..but they “still had booze”.
And on to recommendation number 2, with a now healthy dose of skepticism. We arrived at Trufa, a small cozy looking cafe on 140th and Broadway and paused outside to look at the menu. While we were discussing, the waiter came out to greet us and it was a done deal. The menu was quite similar to one at the restaurants that we frequent in our own neighbourhood, but it had its own charm. It was not the soul food we expected to find, but it was not without soul.
The waiter, who took to calling us ‘his Brooklyn girls’ brought us out a rustic bread with roasted tomato jam to start, a glass of Prosecco, a glass of Pinot Noir and a Coke. We decided to share and ordered Caesar Salad, Crab Cakes and Linguine Puttanesca with Shrimp. As a chef’s choice, they brought us out an off-the-menu appetizer of clams, mussels and shrimp. Their Marinara sauce (which was used in the pasta and the appetizer) was remarkable – just the right degree of sweetness – and their seafood extremely well prepared, particularly the clams. Overall, everything was solid and satisfying.
As we finished the meal with some wine (except for Sarah) and a piece of Oreo cake (including Sarah), we discussed some of the recent passages within our lives – graduations (our good friend Ralph’s which just happened and Bonnie’s which is upcoming), pregnancies, births, as well as the dear things that have left our lives. We toasted to my grandma, Alma Ryalls, who has recently passed. Her door was open to anyone – and many passed through those doors – gay or straight, psychic or average cognitive ability, gangsters, addicts, angels, family, friends and neighbours – and she treated them all like family. I not only loved her, I genuinely liked her – and I will miss her for the rest of my days. We also toasted to Sarah’s grandpa, a sweet man, very dear to her heart, who gave everyone a nickname – often with the name Bartholomew.
Our lives, like these neighbourhoods that we visit, change and evolve, sometimes in ways that we would rather they not. The things that we are familiar with and find comfort in disappear, to be replaced by things that sometimes pale in comparison.
But then sometimes they don’t…and the doors that close lead to doors that open to amazing surprises.