Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Restaurant 45: The Cotton Club (Infinite Feast XX)

RESTAURANT: The Cotton Club
LOCATION: 656 W 125th St, Harlem
DATE: June 26, 2005
FOOD: Open Buffet including Fried Chicken, Potato Salad, Cornbread, Grits, Scrambled Eggs, Red Snapper, Beet Salad, Buttered Rolls, Black Beans and Rice, Collared Greens, Sweet Potatoes, Stewed Tomatoes, Fried Chicken Livers and a slice of Carrot Cake.
PRICE: (for show and food) $36.73

Combine uplifting gospel music, stomach-pounding southern soul food, a history of white oppression and busloads of tourists and what do you get? Harlem’s historic Cotton Club, situated in West Harlem, just a block from the river (and from Dinosaur BBQ). While most of my Sunday mornings don’t involve praising the Lord as much as sleeping until the arrival of afternoon, the weekly Sunday brunch and Gospel show at the Cotton Club was an eye-opening experience both figuratively and literally.

The Cotton Club originally opened in 1923, after boxer Jack Johnson sold the failed Club De Lux to a syndicate of mobsters. The Cotton Club became a spot not only for flaunting the restrictions of prohibition but also as a stage for the world’s best black entertainers, including everyone from Duke Ellington to Lena Horne. What makes the Cotton Club’s history all the more complex is that due to a “white only” policy, the clientele of the Club were generally ritzy, wealthy, and white. Reopened on West 125th St. in 1978, the Club now thankfully allows all races to enter. The Club’s mission is to keep alive an element of the city’s legacy.

Brunch at the Cotton Club includes a live gospel performance, with a host of vocalists accompanied by a jazz band. Clouded by a hangover from an apartment party the night before, as the lead vocalist praised God for being able to answer any of our prayers, all I really wanted was for Him to reduce the relentless pounding in my head. It being Sunday, He was probably busy attending more pious requests, as my brain throbbing continued unabated throughout the meal.

However, though my mind was a mess, the Cotton Club had my gut provided for. A lavish buffet including just about every single soul food dish imaginable (save fried Okra, which sadly, I still have never tried) called to me with its promise of greasy redemption. Reviewing a buffet is difficult because how a food tastes depends extensively on the factors of temperature and the time between preparation and eating. Even Thomas Keller’s “Coffee and Doughnuts” would become unappealing sitting under a heat lamp for four hours.

With that said, the Cotton Club puts on a very nice spread. Fresh food is constantly being brought from the kitchen and what is already out, though not hot, is at least adequately warm. The best salads were the traditional potato salad, using Yukon spuds and a mayonnaise-mustard base and the orange-flavored beet salad. The salad sparked memories of childhood barbeques with its simple peppery creaminess, while the beet salad was a bit more special, the bitterness of the oranges melding nicely with the pungent uniqueness of widely sliced beets.

Fried foods are especially problematic for buffets and the overly greasy nature of the Cotton Club’s fried chicken was only exacerbated by its tepid heat. The rest of the buffet was a litany of up and downs mimicking the tribulations of the characters in John Edgar Wideman’s Sent For You Yesterday, the reason for this, the 20th meeting of Infinite Feast. The scrambled eggs possessed a pleasant cheesiness, while the grits were excessively dry and lackluster. Chunks of sweet potatoes had been flavored splendidly with brown sugar and molasses while the macaroni and cheese was as unremarkably predictable as Trent Lott refusing to support the Senate’s apology for lynching Black Americans. The red snapper was refreshingly buoyant and seasoned with a New Orleans flair, but the collard greens tasted as brackish as raked leaves left to ferment in a diseased cesspool of puddle water.

My favorite two items were actually both of the breads. The cornbread was dense and smoky, the type of rich, un-crumbly cornbread perfect for soaking up leftover sauce and drippings. Additionally, the buttered rolls were exceptionally light and, well, buttery, tasting almost like a croissant gone Cajun. During the performance, the Cotton Club’s servers came around with a selection of cakes, from which I selected the carrot. While Wideman’s language focused on using only words that were essential, the Cotton Club took the exact opposite approach to their application of frosting on the cake, lathering enough of the tongue-turning sweetness to make Serendipity’s application of whipped cream seem delicate.

One doesn’t visit the Cotton Club mainly for the food. It’s a chance to partake in part of New York City’s past that though objectionable, is inescapable and enlightening. While the subdued white tourists failed to swing with the same graceful rhythm as the band, it was nice to see that some traditions never die – even if they do become more spectacle than reverence. Viewing the passionate faith on the singers’ faces and those of some audience members, was the most spiritual and moving part of the Cotton Club experience, making the price of admission worthwhile. An opportunity to glimpse a shade of New York’s history, specifically that dealing with a policy of segregation too often forgotten, is reason enough to venture up to Harlem. Throw in foot-thumping music and a touch of finger-licking soul cuisine, and you got yourselves the making of a memorable Sunday morning, even if you’re unaccostumed to getting out of bed at that ungodly hour of 11 am.

RATING: 6.0/10

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