Mountain Bird Sings in Harlem
My pal for whom the taxi meter tolled grew crankier with every mile. Why the hell was I taking him all the way to this shabby stretch of 145th Street when his own 20021 zip code is suddenly vibrating with new eating excitement? He isn't all that comforted either when the four of us are settled at a tiny marble table wrapped in brown butcher paper. Yes, the lace curtains are charming. The orchid is duly noted. And the gold monogram MB for Mountain Bird on every plate. "But the menu is fun," I insist. "And cassoulet on West 145th Street. This could be a find."
We've finally given our order to what seems to be the lone waitress. She races around welcoming, coat-checking, delivering and policing, clearing and resetting, smiling, courting questions, explaining the necessity of cock's combs, covering all nine tables. Well then, what is taking so long?
We've had more then enough time to examine the woes and triumphs of friends and foes before the whirling dervish brings vanilla butter pressed into two doll-size covered roasting pans. Then after an extended hiccup of a pause, the long, warmed pumpernickel baguette arrives. "Mountain Bird," it says on the wrapper. "From Head to Toe." An extra $4. We rip into the bread without ceremony. The butter, too cold to spread, gets popped atop. Delicious. Agreed. Delicious. Yes. More. Sure. More.
At last, food. The mushroom and celery soup with pumpernickel croutons comes in a pretty teacup on a doily. Indeed, everything sits on a doily -- endearing, but not quite making up for the paper napkins. The intense and fragrant soup is too hot to taste, but worth a slight scalding. And once we can actually taste it -- lush and mellow.
The nutty seared scallop starter with oyster mushrooms on carrot and parsnip purée is draped in a vegetable-mussel-saffron foam. A retro eyeful that pleases the mouth, too.
And my shrimp bisque mac & cheese -- a searing hot crock of over-the-top mad indulgence -- is the clincher. I take two small elbows of pasta, letting them cool on my fork. Oh my you-know-who. Imagine richly cheesy macaroni with creamy shrimp bisque stirred in. A generous portion, easily enough for all of us. I pass it along with a warning that I'm expecting it back.
Thus halfway through dinner, we've already succumbed. My pals already agree the trek to the delightfully eccentric Mountain Bird is worth the detour and maybe even whatever is going on in the kitchen that sets a slow pace. That would be chef Kenichi Tajima all by himself in the kitchen, with only a dishwasher to handle cleanup.
His wife Keiko is the manager, waitress and everything else. She minds the music too: opera, classical, sometimes Edith Piaf. The chef had been working in Paris and Lyon after graduating from Tokyo's prestigious Tsuji Cooking School. They met on his vacation in New York where she was a student. "And he never went back," she says.
Tajima worked with François Payard and Philippe Bertineau at Payard on Lexington before getting into catering with Alexandra Morris at Tastings. When she moved to a bigger space nearby, they took over her kitchen with Mountain Bird -- the dream, the design, the concept, their own -- the space hers. "We wanted to make it like a small shop you discover when you are driving through Europe," she told Eater. A jump to Eater's Manhattan Heat map got me there.
I might have saved the macaroni for my entrée and ordered the featured hors d'oeuvre (it isn't often you find that word spelled correctly). "Small tasty bites from head-to-toe -- an $8 starter for one, $15 for two -- combines chicken comb cutlet, duck gizzard and heart, chicken liver pâté and chicken wing lollipop." But my timid pals have already rejected the Toulouse-style cassoulet, after Keiko warns it involves gizzard confit and cock's combs. I'll be back to taste that.
Well, maybe chicken schnitzel is not my thing. I'm not a lover of white meat. But my friend who chose it is ecstatic. "I've never thought of tartar sauce on a wiener schnitzel before," he comments. I taste. It's crisp and juicy and this TarTar (as the menu calls it) is a genius touch. Something called tomato-goulash sauce in a sauce boat alongside makes a pleasant change of pace.
I guess the tomato-goulash dribble is the overrun of my Turkey Drumstick Goulash. That's pretty good too, and I especially like the few turkey meatballs anchored in the sauce. No way I can finish that huge leg, even sharing it around. Especially after tasting the excellent vegetarian cannelloni and a surprisingly smart chicken duo (roasted breast, braised leg) with garlic mashed potato, turkey bacon and vegetables in a wine sauce. Entrees run from $13 for barbeque turkey burger with a potato croquette to $23 for Moulard duck duo. Everything comes with a timbale of vegetables and whole grain pilaf.
The chef does desserts fit for a photo shoot. His seriously grown-up brownie is mostly cocoam beside a float of whipped cream. The masterly cheesecake in its graham cracker crust is a duo too - the top is fresh cheesecake, the bottom baked. If you only get one dessert, let it be the seductive toffee layer cake made with dried mission figs and frosted with a blend of cream cheese and sour cream.
There is a final table turn. I grab my scarf against the wind chill. Then the front door blows open by itself and Keiko throws herself across the room to wrestle it closed. Our schnitzel leftovers are delivered, and our coats, still smiling. "Were you pleased?" she asks, anxiously.
I see two pea soup green taxis passing by, but our friend has called a car to take us home. I imagine skirting the Bois du Boulogne on the Peripherique to a Grand Boulevard. And then from a chimera of France, I'm home.
231 West 145th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. 212 281 5752. Tuesday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 pm, Friday and Saturday till 11 pm. Sunday brunch 11:30 am till 2 pm. Dinner 5 to 9 pm. Closed Monday.