Thursday, 15 March 2012

The Soulful Gospel Brunch: NYC’s Harlem? Or High Above The Thames?

By Nathalie Bonney

Harlem, New York, home to Sylvie’s Restaurant, the area’s best-known soul-food restaurant and venue for its famous Sunday gospel brunches. Harlem itself conjures up plenty of negative New York stereotypes, and it’s fair to say a Brit tourist, like me, wandering around the back streets and asking hostile shop sellers for directions to the aforementioned establishment might feel a little out of her depth. This is Harlem after all, not my native Harrow.

But like anywhere that’s stuck in the mire of public opinion, my experience at Sylvie’s Restaurant lifted Harlem out of its gutter typecast and it now remains one of my favourite New York experiences out of my four visits to NYC .

Why? Because when I walked into Sylvie’s Restaurant it was like I was home. There is just something about it: the staff are so welcoming and friendly, and it’s unpretentious; no fancy tableware or crockery, just framed photos of its famous visiting diners (including Obama) covering the walls and, best of all, the food is a-maz-ing.
How then will slick restaurant Altitude (at the top of the Millbank Tower) manage to decant Sylvie’s Harlem charm to its own Thameside location? Every Sunday from 11am-3pm Altitude opens its London doors and serves up its own £49 gospel brunch. Portion control at Altitude definitely follows America’s supersize measurements. While Bloody Mary’s, mimosas and bellinis are the alcoholic drinks of choice.
There’s no doubting the food is good. The cornbread (a small piece compared to the other breads) and onion bread need no added butter and it would be easy to polish off the whole basket before even starting our mains. We just about manage to hold ourselves back for the next course though: rack of ribs and BBQ chicken.
The ribs are good, but a bit more sauce would make them better. And while the chicken is tasty I’m not sure how close it is to soul food. I’d say the poultry has had significantly less contact with oil than is typically required of soul food. And here, I guess, is the problem with a place like Altitude serving up soul food. Its polished black floors, heavy white tablecloths and panoramic views of the Thames are all perfect for a swanky London restaurant, but they don’t quite fit with the gospel brunch premise.

I can’t help but reminisce to myself about Sylvie’s Restaurant where the chicken, served in a less aesthetically stylish basket, was nonetheless beautifully crispy on the outside. Grandma’s fluorescent red punch kept flowing and no sooner had we finished our jenga stacks of golden cornbread than Ernest, our college student waiter, brought out another load, smiling widely to reveal shiny braces. The staff at Altitude are friendly, albeit in a slightly more formal way, but they also have a huge area to cover and it’s sometimes difficult to get their attention.
Though good, the food and drink alone would not be enough for me to endorse Altitude’s efforts at soul food, but thanks to the London Community Gospel Choir (LCGC) I could be served honey and locusts and still be coming back. These guys are the real deal.
Dressed in bright red choir robes, seven singers (choir members take turns at appearing on Sundays) assemble themselves with choir master Basil Meade at the keyboard. From majestic and steady ‘Great is He’ to Aretha’s ‘Respect’, Mary Mary’s ‘Shackles’ and the moving ‘Amazing Grace’, the vocals are powerful but flawless. The choir is due to appear with Dione Warwick in concert and members frequently appear on the X-factor (gospel choirs are a pre-requisite of X Factor bombast).

I sit there listening to them wondering how the hell Frankie Cocozza managed to stand on stage shrieking ‘my sex is on fire’ (wrong in so many ways) while these guys were deemed backing singers. It’s crazy. Thankfully at the brunch this is not the case, with various members singing solo and others blending beautiful harmonies. More worryingly are their attempts at audience participation. I’m more than happy for other diners to warble ‘this little light of mine’ but my friend and I have no such desire (or vocal ability) to do so ourselves. As the mic is pointed in our direction I wonder at God’s sense of humour. Thankfully, we are let off the hook and get to sit back and enjoy the rest of the music.
Then pudding arrives: waffles with maple syrup, and berries and peanut butter brownie. Amazing Grace indeed.

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