The first time, my friend Amanda and I met in a creative writing class some years ago, we became fast friends, and so, when she telephoned one afternoon and said, “I have some good news, let’s get together for dinner—my treat, and could you pick a place?”
“I can’t wait to hear your news,” I said, “let’s go to Maison Harlem.” That Saturday, November 3rd, Amanda and I entered a bustling, bursting crowd of laughter and camaraderie at the nouveau French restaurant in Upper Manhattan. Immediately, one senses the warmth, woody, soothing place of Maison Harlem, located at 341 St. Nicholas Avenue, New York, NY 10027. The owners are Samuel Thiam and Romain Bonnans, who are French, expatriates; who are eclectic entrepreneurs, and who have created a French style, a “Home Away” style ambiance at their French Bistro.
We sat at the bar, waited for our table and ordered wine: Durigutti Malbec 2009 (Argentina, Mendoza). Right away, Amanda said, “Oh, I’m hungry, what are they having?” Sitting on my left were a couple who appeared to eating an appetizing meal. “Excuse me,” I said, “What are you having for dinner?” The lean Sandy-haired man replied, “I having the Merguez de Barbes (Grilled Spicy Lamb Sausages with French Fries), and my girlfriend, the Duck Leg Confit (Slow Cooked then Crisped and Served with Cauliflower Gratin/Orange Cognac Sauce). We shared the Croustillant De Chevre (Crispy Phyllo Pastry filled with Goat Cheese/Spinach with Cherry Tomatoes and Spinach Salad.” He laughed, and continued, “It’s our third time being here. We love it. I’m French, we live in the neighborhood, and I like coming here also, because, I can speak French to the waiters and all the staff speaks French. We like that.”
“Thanks,” I said, and turned to Amanda, and at the same time, the hostess arrived to tell us our table was ready.
On the way, I stared at the large French windows, the old-fashioned wallpaper, the red leather chairs, and a white vintage porcelain lamp at the host’s table. Suddenly, I bumped into my friend, Vi. “Hi, Wanda,” she said, and we hugged one another.
“Vi,” I echoed, “How are you? It’s great seeing you.”
“We are just leaving,” Vi said, “this is my friend Greg.”
“Hi Greg,” I said while we shook hands.
“Wanda, you are going to love the food,” Vi said.
“Yes, it’s delicious,” Greg agreed. “I feel like I’m in Paris, the food is fantastic, and the best part is I live across the street.”
Vi and I spoke for a few more moments, before saying goodbye. Amanda was at the table, staring at the menu.
Soon, our lovely waitress Maty took our orders. Amanda and I shared the Garden Salad (Organic Field Green Salad with Cherry Tomatoes/Cucumber/Carrot “Julienne”); and for our dinner entrees, Amanda chose the Wild Mushroom Risotto (with Baby Vegetables/Balsamic Glaze); and I chose the Grilled Salmon (On a bed of Ratatouille/Lemon Caper Sauce). The meal was a melt-in-your-mouth experience, and such that, we had no room for dessert. But later, we decided to have coffee, and chatted-away, along with ebullient faces throughout Maison Harlem.
By the time we left, I ran into Samuel, who co-owns Maison Harlem. “We loved our meal, what a marvelous place,” I stated.
“We don’t play around,” he said. “We have our grove that we do.”
The following week, I interviewed Samuel Thiam.
CI: How would you describe Maison Harlem?
ST: We are an authentic French Bistro/Café; Comfortable Restaurant/House—people come for food with their friends, we serve breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner. We are a nice restaurant to come to and watch the time go by.
CI: What is your favorite restaurant in Paris?
ST: That would be Le Hangar (12 Impasse Berth and 75003 Paris, France); it is a tiny little restaurant, it’s close to Beaubourg; it’s in a terrific area and really nice place.
CI: When you pick a moment to relax, what is your preferred meal?
ST: I like to eat a lot of many things. I tend to order a cheese board, Charcuterie Platter with prosciutto, garlic sausages with bread, and some olives. I share a bottle of wine; oysters—and then Carbonara with my friend.
CI: Where did you get the confidence, the commitment to follow your dream?
ST: I came here 15 years ago, I had a career in everything; I worked in restaurants; I was a contractor; and drove a cab. It all gave me good insight on what I wanted to do. And so, the restaurant is sort of a regrouping of all those things, skills and training.
CI: What advice would you give someone who wanted to open up a restaurant?
ST: Number One: definitely, have a chef as a partner. If the chef leaves, the menu changes, it could be costly. Number Two: Love people. The restaurant business is about people, not about you. It’s about coming in, where they don’t have to worry about anything for an hour or two. The minute they step in, we got you!
Thank you, Mr. Thiam for our interview. And I have to thank Amanda, too. We celebrated her new promotion, her new guy, and an unexpected Thanksgiving invitation.
Happy Thanksgiving to everyone, and catch Maison Harlem at http://maisonharlem.com.