Harlem: The 5 and Diamond Is a Diamond, With Some Rough

Slideshow SLIDESHOW: Harlem: The 5 and Diamond Is a Diamond, With Some Rough

[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

The 5 And Diamond

2072 8th Avenue, New York, NY 10026 (between 112 and 113th streets; map) 646-684-4662; 5anddiamondrestaurant.com
Service: Friendly and very attentive, but with menu availability issues
Setting: Small and intimate with an upscale neighborhood vibe
Must-Haves: Burger, Mac & Cheese, Shrimp
Cost: $8-15 for appetizers, $13-29 for entrées
Grade: B-

Whenever you start talking about an up-and-coming neighborhood—particularly one that you live in—you run the risk of over-boosting. Take the strip of Harlem on Frederick Douglass Boulevard just north of Central Park—an area fast becoming my favorite place to hang out.

I'm certainly a Harlem booster. It's only natural. I'm proud of my community, I want to see it thrive, and I want to see it get recognized for its achievements. (See my recent review of Jin, for instance). But I do go out of my way to try as many new places as possible and only point out the good ones.

Suffice it to say, among the new arrivals in the area, there are the good, the bad and the ugly. The last consists of one particularly popular Italian spot* that not only served me gristly meatballs, but worse, they were served in a cast iron skillet straight out of the oven without a single warning. I ended up leaving that night without my fingerprints.

*Whose name I will withhold, but garners a whopping 4-stars from Yelpers!

Even within single establishments, menus can be hit or miss. An excellent French 75 at 67 Orange Street overshadows an improperly stirred, harsh Sazerac. Great sweet potato fries and music at Harlem Tavern are accompanied by a lackluster burger. Similarly, The 5 and Diamond, a two year-old neighborhood restaurant with high aspirations (Ryan Skeen of Pera, Café Boulud, and Fish Tag helmed the kitchen when it first opened, but no longer has any association with the restaurant), gets many things right, but other things very wrong.

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Right: The service. Friendly and professional to a T. Even before our waiter took our order, we'd become friends with the barman who talked us through his favorite cocktails like a proud father.

Wrong: The actual cocktails. A Blood Orange Cilantro Margarita ($12) sounds great, but comes off as almost sickly sweet. As our bartender said when he delivered a bourbon-based drink to the table, "trust me, you won't even know it's whiskey!" That's not a good thing in my book.

Right: The menu and wine list are both interesting, approachable, and reasonably priced.

Wrong: The menu and wine list have very little to do with what is actually offered at the restaurant. A good 20% of the menu was unavailable the night we went, along with the entirety of the wine list, which instead was replaced with a half dozen completely different bottles.

Good service counts for a lot to me, and after we were finally able to straighten out the menu and order, we ended up having a very pleasant evening occasionally marked by great food.

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The best mac & cheese around.

The menu seems best when you stick with the basics. A strong Mac & Cheese ($8) is one that deserves its own section on the menu, which it receives on Monday nights when crab, bacon, or excellent short ribs can be added to the ultra-creamy, breadcrumb-topped base for an extra buck or two. On normal nights it's available in standard ($8) and truffle-scented ($14) versions. This may well be the best mac & cheese in a very mac & cheese-heavy neighborhood.

The Monday night menu also features a four-recipe all-wings Happy Hour from 5:30 to 7:00, and half price drinks all night (stick with the beer and wine). Yes, Mondays in Harlem can be fun.

Shrimp al Ajillo ($12) is another common dish done uncommonly well. Garlicky shrimp are seared to a perfect tender crunch with a rich smoky broth of chile and wine. An order served alongside a Frisée Salad ($10; perhaps the only one in Harlem?) would make a fine, light meal. 5 and Diamond's comes with sautéed pears and crisp, well-rendered bacon. Its fat coats a heap of crunchy bitter greens, dressed just lightly enough that you don't feel bad dousing them in soft poached egg yolk.

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Excellent scallops, terrible tortellini.

You get a mixed bag with the Seared Scallops ($14). The scallops themselves are about as well-cooked as you could hope for. They're sweet, nutty brown, with a just-warmed through center, and they even come in a decent, if over-salted parmesan and mushroom broth. It's the chewy fennel and bacon-filled tortellini that fall flat. They reminded me mainly of day-old wonton soup in their waterlogged mushiness.

The theme of poor pasta runs through to the main plates as well. 5 and Diamond's Housemade Pappardelle ($18) is a frustrating dish. The short rib ragú with melted Manchego is one of the better items on the menu. They could easily replace the mushy pasta with more of their creamy cranberry beans and have a winning plate on their hands. The short ribs fare far better when stirred into mac and cheese on Mondays.

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An excellent burger.

The best dish of the evening was another return to well-executed classics. The 5 and Diamond Burger ($13) is a seriously juicy, beefy piece of meat with a nice, fatty chew and a hint of sweetness reinforced by oven-roasted tomatoes served on top. You don't need (or even want) to add ketchup to this one, and the skinny fries rival the best of the style.

I live next to a 24-hour fish fry shop, but I didn't think I'd live to see the day when a piece of properly grilled medium-rare Salmon ($26) would be served in Harlem. The fish is fresh, tender, and moist enough to excuse the shortcomings of its accompaniments—an overly-sticky chive risotto and an odd slaw of jicama and mango that is neither crunchy nor complementary. A side of grilled asparagus would be both tastier, and more seasonally appropriate.

Other sides are worthy choices as well. Sautéed Sweet Corn and Wild Mushrooms ($6) is a near entrée-sized portion of well-cooked vegetables simply seasoned with fresh thyme, while Parmesan Quinoa ($6) is similarly creamy, but a good step up over the salmon's risotto any day of the week. It's an interesting take on one of the hot ingredients of the moment.

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A sad "sticky" toffee pudding.

Indeed, I was so happy with the burger and salmon that it's almost unfortunate we ordered dessert. Though it may have been due to the state of their oven, the sticky toffee pudding we had was completely skippable, coming off more as dry toffee-flavored cake. They claim their doughnuts are "famous," which is usually a good sign to steer clear, but I'll have to try them on a future trip nonetheless. And as one of the nicer spots in what's become a great neighborhood, I will most definitely be back.

A brunch menu featuring Shrimp and Grits ($20), a host of Grilled Cheeses ($12 to $14), and Fried Chicken or Bourbon Brioche French Toast ($10.50) sounds like an especially promising meal. Perhaps they'll even be cooking the same food as what's listed on the menu next time.

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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