Why the Chef at Harlem’s Hottest Restaurant Decided to Overhaul His Whole Menu

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Moqueca: Brazilian fish stew with salt cod, okra, prawns, and Thai basil.
Moqueca: Brazilian fish stew with salt cod, okra, prawns, and Thai basil. Photo: Melissa Hom

Since the Cecil opened in the fall of 2013, chef Joseph “JJ” Johnson has helped bring the Harlem restaurant much acclaim. It comes as a bit of a surprise, then, that he has completely revamped the menu. “We’ve always changed the menu but kept the staples,” he says. “And then, as more and more people came to dine at the restaurant, I would see them only ordering the staples. I want the culinary world to know that Afro-Asian-American cooking is not one-dimensional. It’s a big conversation. There’s a lot of history. Introducing this new menu is a way to keep the conversation going.”

New dishes include fried-chicken fried rice, tamarind-glazed oxtails, and a Brazilian fish stew called moqueca, which Johnson says is “big and bold and filled with aromatics,” and replaces the once-popular gumbo. He understands that some regulars won’t be thrilled with the changes, as he’s only keeping the collard-green salad and the okra fries. “It is a culture shock,” he says. “People will be nervous. People might even walk out.”

But this menu evolution mirrors how Johnson has grown as a chef. Recent trips to Israel and Blackberry Farm in Tennessee have informed his cooking, and he’s now working closely with Anson Mills and sourcing grains like African popping sorghum. “No one knew who I was, and Alexander [Smalls] and Richard Parsons gave me shot,” he says. “I really owned it. And I think really owning what you do helps you progress.” Take a look at a few of his new creations:

"The Carrot": carrot purée, roasted heirloom carrot tops, coriander dressing.
"The Carrot": carrot purée, roasted heirloom carrot tops, coriander dressing. Photo: Melissa Hom
Pan-roasted venison with cardamom celery root, ginger broccoli, and housemade harissa.
Pan-roasted venison with cardamom celery root, ginger broccoli, and housemade harissa. Photo: Melissa Hom
Braised goat dumplings served with peanut piri piri, celery coriander salad, and candied peanuts.
Braised goat dumplings served with peanut piri piri, celery coriander salad, and candied peanuts. Photo: Melissa Hom
Tamarind-glazed oxtails with pickled cabbage and brown-rice grits.
Tamarind-glazed oxtails with pickled cabbage and brown-rice grits. Photo: Melissa Hom

Menu [PDF]

The Cecil’s Menu Makeover