I spend a lot of time on social media keeping an eye out for new trends, new brands, new foods and new must-try recipes.
A couple weeks ago I started seeing folks I follow on twitter talking about a new spot in Harlem, The Cecil. I immediately headed to their website where I learned more about the offerings from this African/American/Asian fusion restaurant.
African, Asian?? Intriguing to say the least. Once I spotted the oxtail dumplings on the menu, I didn’t even need to read any further!
I hit up one of my foodie friends, hopped over to OpenTable and made a reservation.
Located at the corner of 118th & St. Nicholas, The Cecil boasts a warm inviting ambiance, filled with dim lighting, warm tones and beautiful artwork. My dinner companion and I wanted to sample a little somethin’ somethin’ from each category so my dinnermate started by ordering the Masai cocktail, a tasty and well-spirited(if you know what I mean) bourbon based drink accented by orange and spiced cherries.
I’m big on details so I loved the huge ice block in the drink that did the job of keeping the drink nice and frosty without melting quickly and watering down the flavors.
The culinary portion of our journey started with two small plate dishes; a duo of deviled duck eggs and the oxtail dumplings. I’ve never had duck eggs and I’m honestly not a deviled egg fan but these little gems are SO yummy. There’s just enough spice that the creamy yolks are well seasoned yet not overpowered. And the jalapeno, bacon, curried currant and pickled relish salad they sat on top of was surprisingly equally as good. Let’s just say, not a morsel was left on the plate!
And the oxtail dumplings? Laaaawdahmercy!I never would have thought to put oxtail inside of a dumpling but I’m definitely glad Chef “JJ”(who graciously came over and chatted with us for a second) did. The dumplings arrived swimming in a green apple curry sauce that had I not remembered to bring my couth to dinner, would have been slurped up with a spoon. With a delicately thin wrapper, the dumplings seriously melted in my mouth. The oxtail was a little bit on the peppery(black pepper, not spicy) side; (possibly a little more all spice could give the right balance), but you still get that flavorful, fatty goodness oxtails are known for.
I could have ordered another helping or two of the dumplings and been happy as a clam but instead I moved on to the entrees. I’d heard wondrous things about the cinnamon scented fried guinea hen but we opted for the black benne seed ahi tuna and the grilled beef petite tenderloin.
The ahi tuna, crusted in benne seeds was fresh and cooked perfectly. The benne seeds added a great crunch and were perfect for visual interest. You may be wondering, what are benne seeds? Welp, good thing I’m here and fully believe in the powers of “googling”. Benne seeds are in fact seseme seeds and were referred to as benne seeds by the Africans who brought them to America during slavery.
Now knowing the origins of the benne seed, this dish is a perfect play on African/Asian fusion. The tuna is balanced out by the citrus zing of yuzu and is paired with a bok choy and Chinese sausage salad. I’ve never been a fan of ahi tuna(hey, a girl knows what she likes) but this dish had very well developed flavors and was a great take on a fairly common dish.Again hooooorrid lighting, but the petite beef tenderloin was served up with a black pepper sauce, crispy okra fries and a sundried tomato and black eyed pea salad. As a complete dish, I’d say this dish was simply alright. With the exception of the actual tenderloin, I enjoyed it very much; however, the tenderloin which I ordered medium, well was pretty tough and a little difficult to chew. Sure, maybe that’s what I get for ordering a tenderloin medium well but I always order my beef medium well!
The black pepper sauce, though a little heavy handed, was a tasty accent for the steak. My favorite part of this dish was the okra fries. I’m a gal with very Southern roots so I grew up eating fried okra. I’m not a fan of okra’s sliminess so fried is really the only way I can enjoy it. They were cooked perfectly and had a wonderful crunchiness, with just the right touch of salt. The sundried tomato & black eyed pea salad was a nice compliment but I wish my salad had more than 3 black eyed peas.
I barely had room enough to breath but my dinnermate insisted that I couldn’t give a well-rounded review without trying a dessert, and she was right. We went for the coconut rice pudding served with lychee sorbet and pistachio cream.
I was pleasantly surprised by the crunchy brûléed crust. Pistachio, lychee and coconut are a notably interesting trio but it works here! The pistachio gets a little lost at times with the strong lychee flavor but the light cream provides a nice balance. The lychee sorbet was great and somewhat of an unexpected star . If it isn’t offered as a separate item on the menu already, it should be! The coconut lulls in the background here and that’s probably because only the milk is used in cooking the rice pudding offering up merely a subtle hint of coconut.
All in all, I give the Cecil an A-/B+. The dishes are wildly original and visually stunning. It’s a bit on the pricey side by millennial standards, our tab ran over the $100 mark but for the quality & flavor we received, I didn’t even care. I enjoyed the ambiance which was very “come hither” and made me fell at home. The wait staff, well our waiter in particular was a tad lackadaisical and could have used a bit more menu knowledge. The menu while pretty huge, has a clear vision that is well executed.
I look forward to returning to try the brunch offerings as well as the shared dishes which include a macaroni cheese casserole and a fusion gumbo.