Midnight in Harlem: Breakfast and Jazz with Patti LaBelle

Closing out Saturday night’s festivities at the New York City Wine & Food Festival was Patti LaBelle and Carla Hall’s Midnight Jazz Breakfast.
By: Eric Kim

Closing out Saturday night’s festivities at the  New York City Wine & Food Festival was Patti LaBelle and Carla Hall’s Midnight Jazz Breakfast at the Harlem hot-spot The Cecil. Guests were dressed in their Sunday best — this was a midnight party, after all — and ate good food, drank wine aplenty and danced to a live jazz band.

If I were to walk you through the night, I’d say it felt like an intimate house party that started in 2016 and ended in 1938. Though at first it might seem hard to believe that such a large party as one hosted by Ms. LaBelle herself could fit into the nooks and crannies of a local Harlem restaurant, The Cecil was an ideal venue for such an event.

First I was greeted by a bar — with familiar pours like bourbon on the rocks and a dry Prosecco, both ideal ways to start a meal. But then the bartenders offered a handful of vintage drinks as well, such as the classic sidecar — a sweet, citrusy cognac-based cocktail owing its origins to the Ritz Hotel in Paris, circa 1922.

After a drink or two, I headed into the main dining room for a bite or six. To a contemporary backdrop of Beyoncé, Jay Z and Kanye, I started with an unctuous jumbo shrimp and grits, studded with jalapeno, applewood bacon and a hefty supply of sharp cheddar cheese, from Chef Carlos Swepson of BLVD Bistro.

Next was a lighter johnnycake — which is a cornmeal flatbread fried in a pan, popular in the Caribbean and akin to a hoecake you might have in the South — topped with a sweet peach chutney marmalade and a thin slice of smoked salmon from Chef Raymond Zamanta Mohan of LoLo’s Seafood Shack.

My favorite bite of the night, however, was Carla’s pulled sweet-heat chicken ‘n’ gravy, which nestled a soft, savory cornbread with pickled onion. Most impressive was the way she used all of the chicken — breast, leg and thigh — and even soaked everything in an au jus reminiscent of grade-school chicken pot pie (in the absolute best way possible). Savoriness aside, Chef Hall added sweetness with sorghum and heat with chiles, lending the necessary gustatory balance for which her Southern Kitchen has always been famous.

The night ended not at the bar, but in the kitchen. The Cecil opened up the line for three more delicious bites: a Dominican cubanito, a modern take on the classic Cuban sandwich but with roasted pernil, Black Forrest ham, Gruyère and honey mustard; an omelet-wrapped fried chicken topped with onion jam, a whimsical version of Sunday brunch; and a gourmet deviled egg with braised oxtail and herbs.

In the kitchen was where I got to meet the creative Chef Kelvin Fernandez of Strand Bistro. “This night is mostly about community, celebrating Harlem and its rich history, its food. This is where I’m always accepted and get to be myself. To top it all off, I get to work with my friends; Chef JJ Johnson [James Beard–nominated executive chef of The Cecil] and I went to culinary school together. We support each other.”

As fate would have it, the kitchen led straight to more history: Minton’s, a jazz club built in 1938. I walked in on Dandy Wellington and His Band, an old-fashioned setup with vocal, piano, upright bass, trumpet, saxophone and drums. The room was spacious but intimate. I walked over to Chef Christopher Faulkner’s table and ended my night with the most-delicious “Portland Brekky,” a contemporary take on a savory Jamaican spicy breakfast: jerked chicken sausage over a fried johnnycake.

Though the night’s highlights, for me, were the food, others most enjoyed getting to meet LaBelle.

One exchange went like this: “I didn’t get to worship Patti the way I wanted to.”

“But you saw Patti, right?” To which this gentleman’s date said, “More importantly, I  met Patti.”

More from the 2016 New York City Wine & Food Festival:

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