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Destination Dining: Harlem

7556 copy.jpgHarlem is getting a lot of attention these days as one of New York’s most up and coming neighborhoods. New apartment buildings, shops, and the newly opened Aloft Hotel are attracting more residents and visitors everyday. Back in 1999, the Zagat’s New York City Restaurant Guide didn’t even give Harlem a mention in its location section.  Ten years later, in 2011, the latest Zagat listings include 35 Harlem restaurants with French, Italian, Mediterranean, New American and soul food offerings.  The wealth of new dining and drinking options has put Harlem on the dining map, and not just because of the opening of Red Rooster.  Frederick Douglass Boulevard is quickly gaining a reputation as a restaurant row.  Here are a few of our favorites.  You might want to consider a day trip to maximize your Harlem food tour.

Red Rooster
You can’t talk about Harlem’s thriving dining scene without mentioning Red Rooster.  Of course, Harlem had great restaurants before Marcus Samuelsson came along, but he’s the most well known chef to open in Harlem to date.  More importantly, he’s brought a lot of attention to the neighborhood by celebrating Harlem and America’s comfort food.  He fuses his Ethiopian heritage and Swedish into comfort classics, like Helga’s meatballs with mashed potato and lingonberries and blackened catfish with black-eyed peas and collard greens.  Nearly a year after opening, dinner reservations are tough to come but it’s a great bet for lunch and an even better idea for gospel brunch on the weekends.  Make sure to stop by the bar and sample one their house cocktails, which happen to be some of our favorites for all, like The Savoy, with vodka, lemon, muddled grapes and agave, and The Rooster Punch, with red wine, navan liqueur, pear brandy and mango puree.

picture_044.jpgRistorante Settepani
Originally opened as a bakery, Settepani expanded into a full-blown restaurant with Italian and Mediterranean cooking. The menu is terrifically seasonal, so dishes change every season. The current menu features a standout mushrooms lasagna, pumpkin ravioli with ricotta, olive oil and sage, and pasta with fresh sardines, pine nuts and currants. Stay tuned – Settepani’s owners recently announced plans to open a brick oven pizzeria on the same block.

Bier International
For an afternoon drink, stop into Harlem’s first beer garden.  While it’s technically not a garden, there are long, wood picnic tables and a beer selection worth going out of your way for.  Besides, the modern decor is a nice change of pace from your average beer hall and it’s always buzzing with a healthy size crowd.  There are great brews from all over the world, including Germany, Belgium, Brazil, Corsica, 12 on tap and even a flight of five for $15. For a local selection, try Harlem’s own Sugar Hill. The food menu is equally diverse with German, French or Moroccan sausages. We’re fans of the locally produced bratwurst and housemade sauerkraut.

Levain Bakery
If you’ve had a Levain cookie, you understand why it’s on the list. If you haven’t, the newest branch of Levain Bakery on Douglass Boulevard is the perfect opportunity. With two successful locations (one on the Upper West Side, the other in East Hampton), the owners opened their third outlet, not downtown, but in Harlem earlier this year.  Levain is best known for its oversized, outrageously good cookies.  Take your pick of chocolate chip walnut, oatmeal raisin, dark chocolate with peanut butter chips, and dark chocolate.  But this bakery offers so much more than just cookies.  We recommend stopping here for breakfast for a cup of coffee and fresh-baked brioche, pumpkin bread, a muffin, or whatever else just came out, fresh from the oven.

67-orange.jpg67 Orange Street
After dinner, head to 67 Orange Street for one last drink (or two) before calling it a night. Opened by Karl Franz Williams, the bar is named for the address of Almack’s Dance Hall, one of the city’s first black owned bars in the 1840s. 67 Orange is said to be modeled after Williams’ downtown favorites, like PDT and Death & Company.  And the drinks can more than hold their own.  Try an Ol’ Fashionista with bourbon, Grand Marnier, orange juice and cherries, or a Double Relaxation with chamomile-infused vodka.  This isn’t one of the bars that’s best suited to imbibing.  Even if you’ve eaten dinner, we highly recommend sampling the spicy popcorn with butter, garlic and cayenne, or the stuffed olives with blue cheese and marcona almonds.

Nectar Wine Bar
If you prefer wine to beer or cocktails, head north on Frederick Douglass Boulevard to Harlem’s first tried-and-true wine bar.  Regardless of location, this is a great wine bar to sample the spectrum of interesting wines being produced today.  How many wine bars do you know offer 10 sparkling by the glass, 12 whites, and 12 reds. Opened by Jai Jai Greenfield and Eric Woods in 2008, as a follow up to their Harlem Vintage wine shop next door, Nectar is the area’s first wine bar. The list includes selections from around the globe, and a well-edited menu of cheese, charcuterie and other small bites to complement the grapes.

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