Beautiful people flocked to the new Asian-Afro-Soul food restaurant to open in the heart of Harlem. The beautiful bar area is warm and inviting as an attractive bartender expertly shakes innovative cocktails in front of funky artwork. Unfortunately, the intimate front room of Cecil is a stark contrast with the open, extremely loud and rather bland main dining room.
Our family friends arrived shortly before us, sipping on unusual drinks at the bar. The charismatic bartender handed a menu to my Mom, quickly and blatantly questioning my age. I politely handed him my ID and proceeded to ask questions about the interesting drink list. I opted to order the African Peanut Punch, which was far from a punch or fruity, colorful drink generally associated with the term. Instead, it was a bourbon based beverage with peanut milk, which is made of a strained peanut puree, and finished off with chipotle honey and roasted whole peanuts.
The bartender warned that the cocktail was a bit boozy, but for someone who loves bourbon, this drink is pure perfection. The smoky flavor of the liquor mixes with the sweet peanut milk and the slightly spicy chipotle honey. My dad kept reaching across the bar for extra sips of my drink. Even if you enjoy the flavor of peanuts, you will enjoy this drink even if bourbon isn’t your usual poison.
The cocktails at the bar started off the meal on a really high note. After paying our bar tab, we were lead to our table in the open main dining room. Our table was awkwardly set for five people, with my seat staring at an empty chair. The seating arrangement and restaurant as a whole lacked any feeling of intimacy with the open space feeling almost like an upscale diner, instead of a nice restaurant. The openness contributed to the extreme noise, where music couldn’t be heard and it was impossible to hear anything said across the table. I’ve been to and enjoyed loud restaurants, but this one was just unnecessarily noisy.
We sat for at least twenty minutes with empty water glasses and our menus. Finally the waiter arrived, apologizing and citing front of the house confusion for the delay. The rest of the group ordered cocktails and pitchers of water were placed on the table. We also ordered appetizers for the table, including the $8 bread basket.
The small, yet pricy bread basket arrived first, just moments after everyone’s cocktails. Only two rolls, two hush puppies and one piece of naan accompanied the three unique dipping sauces. For a group of five, this seemed like hardly enough.
The sweet, flaky naan was an easy favorite, especially when dipped into the carrot curry puree. However, there was hardly enough to go around, as we ripped off teeny pieces to allow for everyone to have a sample. The same went for the hush puppies, while the simple rolls straggled behind. Each spread was unique and delicious, but again, there was a serious shortage.
Our other two appetizers arrived moments later. I began by sampling the Afro/Asian/American Oxtail Dumplings (seriously, that’s the name of the dish).
With a complex name and the promise of influential flavors, these oxtail dumplings were fine at best. They seemed like any beef dumpling you would eat at your local Asian restaurant, lacking any spice from the curry sauce.
Next, I tried the West African Beef Suya, which turned out to be the best appetizer of the three.
The spice mix on the thinly sliced beef gives off a smoky chile flavor, but the rum soaked apricot compote steals the show. The compote is sticky and sweet, the ideal counterpoint to the spicy beef. The beef itself was slightly tough since it was cooked all the way through. Once again, there wasn’t a lot of meat but piles of the compote remained.
For the long wait and countless inconveniences, the chef sent over an Heirloom Beet and Brussels Sprout Salad.
Shockingly, this complex salad was the best dish of the night. A medley of roasted beets, including candy cane, red and yellow, mixed with hearts of palm and roasted Brussels sprouts. The five-spice yogurt dressing lightly covered the vegetables adding a smoky, sweet and spiciness. This dish had unusual flavors without trying so hard, allowing for the Afro-Asian-Soul concept to actually work.
For our main dishes, we decided to share three different plates; duck two ways, shrimp burger and citrus jerk wild bass.
To our surprise, the “jumbo” shrimp burger arrived as three mini sliders without the promised kimchi and scallion topping.
The sliders tasted as bland as they looked. The shrimp burger lacked any juicy flavor or any spice from the missing kimchi. The thin sliced of limp shrimp on top of the patty added nothing. Yet the patty wasn’t even the most disappointing part of the dish. The rock hard steamed bun seemed stale, lacking the fluff and buttery nature you usually find in Asian restaurants. There was absolutely no sauce on the slider, which could have helped to somewhat revive the dish by moistening the dry patty and the hard bun. To add insult to injury, the under seasoned fries were cold.
The beautiful presentation of the Citrus Jerk Wild Bass proved that Cecil could step up their game a little bit on looks alone.
The spicy and smoky jerk rub on the wild bass packed a serious punch masking the flavor of the delicate, flakey white fish. The wild bass became difficult to eat as the bitter spice mix lingered on the palate. The fonio, a grain, mimicked a couscous salad with a medley of vegetables mixed into the grains. It was the most enjoyable component to the dish, since really, how badly can you mess up couscous? The white puree on the bottom of the dish was slightly sweet and delicate, adding moisture to the grain. Once again, this dish really fell short.
Our final dish of the evening, the duck, duck two ways was returned to the kitchen after a serious mix up that resulted in us receiving a rare version. After our other two dishes were somewhat finished, the properly cooked version arrived.
Both pieces of duck were beautifully cooked, especially the confit leg which delicately fell off the bone with a simple touch. Such a preparation kept the exterior crispy, while the inside stayed moist and rich. The smoked duck breast had a woody flavor, light pink interior and a thin layer of fat underneath the skin which adds a distinct, rich element.
For all the good things I have to say about the duck, the exact opposite can be said about the other components. The soba noodles were under seasoned with slimy pieces of sliced okra in the mix. It was honestly the worst preparation of the staple Asian dish. The apricot pancake was overly sweet and slightly soggy, adding absolutely nothing.
We attempted to end the meal on a sweet note, with the trio of sobert.
The silky, sweet sorbet ranged in flavor and texture, with a variety of waffle cones holding each one. The key lime was my favorite, tangy and sweet. Even my Dad who hates coconut enjoyed the flavor of the sorbet.
Extreme disappointment describes our meal best. High profile restaurant opening, and even a Rachel Robinson sighting (Jackie Robinson’s wife) couldn’t change the way we perceived our experience at Cecil. Afro-Asian-American cuisine tries too hard creating a flavor profile that doesn’t work. The combination of regional cuisine feels forced. In addition, every single one of the dishes needed sauce, lots of flavorful sauce, to insert a level of moisture to the pieces of protein that so desperately needed it. I understand that there’s a learning curve with a restaurant only open for two weeks, but I don’t think a facelift to the menu would fix Cecil. The lacking quality of service, as well as the extremely open, noisy, disjointed restaurant made the entire experience not enjoyable. The concept as a whole tries too hard and fails miserably.
Cecil – 206 West 118th Street – New York, NY
Type: Asian Fusion, African, Southern
Perfect For: Wasting Time & Money
Reservations: Recommended via OpenTable
Favorite Dishes: Heirloom Beet Salad, Trio of Sorbet