on friday afternoon, i got a call from robert, my neighbor who lives around the corner from me in a co-op on riverside drive. he wanted to know if i was up for trying out a brand new swanky chinese place in harlem called ginger, on E. 116th and 5th avenue. he said it was healthy and traditional. that made me wary. healthy and traditional chinese food? in harlem? not possible. i'd been to enough bullet-proof shotgun chinese fried rice to-go situations uptown and eaten my fair share of dim sum downtown to know that when it's time to eat, what americans are used to is hardly anything like what the chinese prefer.
to tell you the truth, living in new york city has forced my tastebuds to transition to an entirely different level. my friend and i usually frequent places in chinatown that most people either ignore or don't know. it makes it very difficult to make do or even thaw something out when i can have the real thing.
but i would be on the east side in the evening anyway and after reading so many glowing reviews about the place and looking over the menu online, i was curious. we decided to meet up in time to beat the dinner rush. when i arrived, i was more than a little surprised. it was a really beautiful place, the kind of set-up you'd expect to find in tribeca or soho. anywhere but harlem. there were people seated here and there, but it wasn't crowded. yet. keith showed up and we decided to walk up the street to a lovely boutique called N (also brand new to the neighborhood) where i spied a black nicole miller gown that i have to have. the lush leather satchels cost as much as the dress did. and yeah, it was nice to see byron lars and tracey reese on the racks -- but how could someone open a boutique in one of the toniest sections of harlem and not carry their line? more on that later.
we returned to the restaurant, were seated promptly and ordered right away. the emperor's throne was a variety of appetizers on a platter that included a slaw that i practically inhaled. we also ordered four beef ribs to make our start a complete one. deeeeeee-lish. after we ate those ribs (which were so good, it was wacky), things took a surreal twist. strangely, there was always someone hovering nearby to make sure that we were satisfied. our water was always filled. our drinks were always fresh. the talk at the table was non-stop. i was up to my eyeballs in work. robert had just come back from brazil. keith was convinced that the whole area would shift gears enough to make all of mount morris not look like a ghetto anymore. we were surrounded by construction. lots of condos and luxury rentals popping up.
somewhere in there, the manager came over and announced that he had infused some vodka with pineapple and vanilla -- his own recipe -- and he wanted us to try it. by this time, there were quite a few people in the place. things were getting busy, but not overwhelming. when the wait for the entree stretched past the 30 minute mark, we got a round of drinks on the house and an order of baked egg rolls, which were exploding with crunch and zest. and no grease. by this time, i knew that i would surprise my friend by bringing him there for a night out uptown. perhaps dinner and a movie at magic johnson theater a short walk away. i remember thinking, we should spend more time in harlem.
that's right about when our waiter blurted, you're queen esther! i'd met him with brian keith jackson at bergdorf-goodman's, at a party i hosted there for franco mondini-ruiz's book signing. what a fun night that was. and the book -- high pink -- is drop-dead hilarious.
james apologized for the long wait and explained why it happened, but the service was so good and we were enjoying ourselves so much that we totally didn't care. then the food came. and it. was. spectacular. and no, we couldn't finish it. and yes, we had dessert. i'm still thinking about the ginger ice cream. and those ribs. and that slaw. and i don't even like slaw!
i think my friend is going to like this place...