Mountain Bird Brings French Comfort to Harlem
231 West 145th Street (b/n 7th and 8th Avenues, map); mountainbirdnyc.com
Setting: Tiny and homey
Must-Haves: Foie gras dumpling consommé, chicken duo, seared scallop
Service: Only one server, and she treats you like a guest in her home
Compare To: Barawine, Flat Top Bistro
Recommendation: Recommended, editor's pick. If France's Greatest Poultry Hits are your jam, you will be very happy here.
Gentrification is always a double-edged sword and especially so in historically proud neighborhoods like Harlem. On the one hand, it brings in restaurant after restaurant that are high on appearances but low in delivery: I can't tell you the number of meals I've had around my apartment in central Harlem that have fallen victim to the "good enough for the neighborhood" curse. On the other hand, you occasionally come across a new restaurant with food and service so good that you'd be proud to call it your go-to weeknight spot.
Mountain Bird, a new French spot on 145th street run by a Japanese chef who specializes in all things poultry, is one of them. It's surprising to find an ambitious Harlem restaurant that's not on either the strip of Frederick Douglass above Central Park or near the 125th street Lenox Avenue stop, but what it lacks in neighborhood appeal, it more than makes up for in its homeyness, great food, and extremely reasonable prices.
To call the space tiny would mean exaggerating its size. It's miniscule; my doctor's waiting room has more seats. This is not a bad thing. To find a restaurant in Manhattan where you can actually sit down and talk to your dinner companion without straining is a rarity. I've visited the restaurant three times, and every time I've been served by the same waitress, a Japanese woman who happens to have the same name as my mother. Fitting, as she treated me like a guest in her home from the very first time I stepped into the door.
The name of the restaurant may be Mountain Bird, but Yard Bird may have been more appropriate, given the chicken-heavy slant of the menu. Your meal should start with a "head to toe" (a.k.a. beak to talon) plate that comes with a braised cock's comb cooked schnitzel-style with a dollop of honey mustard tartar sauce (great), a chicken liver pâté on toast with port wine gelée (also great), a fried chicken wing lollipop with a drizzle of black truffle dressing (good), and duck gizzards and hearts bound in a creamy garlic sauce wrapped in phyllo (the only skippable thing). It's a steal at $8.
If good soup and clear broth in particular is a litmus test for great French technique, then Chef Kenichi Tajima's got what it takes—makes sense, given his François Payard and Phillippe Bertineau pedigree. His Foie Gras Dumpling Comsommé ($7) is as rich and lip-stickingly tasty as it is crystal clear, and perhaps the most inexpensive foie gras dish in town. Rotating seasonal soups (cauliflower one time, roasted kabocha squash another) have been equally clean and elegant.
Mountain Bird's version of Macaroni and Cheese ($8) is described on the menu as being flavored with "shrimp bisque." It's ridiculously creamy with a crisply browned bread crumb topping, though I didn't taste much seafood in it. If shellfish is what you're after, the Seared Scallops ($14) will do you better. They're sweet, plump, and briny, and come pan-seared golden brown with a seasonal vegetables and a mussel-saffron sauce.
Main courses bring you birds in still more forms. The best is a Chicken Duo ($18) with a very chicken-y, crisp-skinned chicken breast and a thigh braised in red wine coq au vin-style with carrots, mushrooms, pearl onions, and fat lardons of turkey bacon served over buttery mashed potatoes. There's nothing earth-shatteringly original here—or even original at all, as a matter of fact—but there's a reason this dish is a classic, and Mountain Bird does it well.
Same goes for their Mountain Bird Cassoulet ($20), which is properly saucy with creamy white beans, nubs of cock's comb and confit gizzard, two types of homemade turkey sausage, turkey bacon, and confit duck leg. This is heavy, and I mean that in both the literal and the Marty McFly sense of the word. Luckily, the night I ordered there was a blindingly cold January frost outside.
There are vegetable and seafood mains available on request (we had a nicely crisped red snapper filet one night), but if red meat is more your speed, the closest you'll get is a Moulard Duck Duo ($23): crisp confit duck leg and pan-roasted breast sliced and served with a duck jus, seasonal vegetables, and a huckleberry sauce. This is the kind of duck that makes you want to steal bites from your sister's plate while she's not looking and hope she doesn't notice (she did).
So have you noticed those prices yet? Not bad, right? Two people can get in and out with a head to toe sampler, a shared appetizer, a couple entrees, and a dessert or two for under $100. Very not bad.
Speaking of very not bad, the desserts, all served out of a patisserie-style display case, fit that description. It's rare to find a savory chef who is equally adept at pastry, but that Payard training must have rubbed off on Chef Tajima, who runs the whole kitchen as a one man show. Your best bets for dessert are the Double Layered Cheese Cake, the Dark Rum 72% Chocolate Cake, or the Tiramisu Cake, all $5 a slice.
There's currently not much else of note on this lonely strip of 145th street, but if Mountain Bird is setting the bar for things to come, then the neighborhood has a lot to look forward to.
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.