Harlem Eatup: Dine In Harlem at Sylvia’s

IMAG0763_1One of my favorite food events of the year is the Harlem Eatup! I attended the Stroll/Taste last year with a family member and did not know what is was or what to expect. However, I thoroughly enjoyed myself and I wanted to make this an annual Harlem trip. This year, I followed the social media posts about the events and made sure to know when tickets went on sale. I remembered the year before that many of the events were sold out other than The Taste itself. This year, I attended a hosted dinner themed Carolina BBQ meets Harlem Block Party at Sylvia’s Soulfood Restaurant (Sylvia’s Also private dining room) by Tren’ness Woods-Black and Carla Hall of the Chew on Friday night and the Taste/Stroll on Saturday afternoon.

One of the reasons why l love the Harlem Eatup is because of what it means to the community. As many of you may know, Harlem was ridden with crime and drugs for several decades beginning in the 1970s. Within the last 10-15 years, people have come back into Harlem and the beautiful buildings have been restored. Some have been torn down and rebuilt but regentrification has been in full effect. Many argue the negatives of this process but you cannot deny that being able to walk down a Harlem street without the fear of being mugged or worse is quite refreshing.  However, no matter how many improvements are made, you have to attract people back to the area. Harlem was already the home of several amazing restaurants but Chef Marcus Samuelsson of Red Rooster had a vision to make an even greater difference. Making frequent appearances on the Food Network, he was able to use his celebrity to get people back to Harlem and showcase some of its best restaurants.

IMAG0762The Friday night event began at 7pm. There were several dinners to choose from but I chose the Sylvia’s dinner event. I attended alone but I knew I would make the best of it and I always make new friends. When my UBER arrived, there was a short line that stood out of the Sylvia’s Also private dining room. This room is located at 318 Lenox Avenue, New York, NY directly next door to the Sylvia’s Soulfood restaurant. While in line, I quickly made a few friends who I partied with throughout the evening. Once I made it through the door, I was greeted by two wonderful hostesses that found my reservation on the list and good upbeat music being played my DJ Ness Digi. What I loved was that Tren’ness Woods-Black, the granddaughter of the late Sylvia Woods, was right at the entrance welcoming guests to the event at her family’s restaurant. I asked to take a photo with her and she eagerly obliged and made sure that we got a great shot. She then gave me a hug and told me to grab a glass of wine and enjoy. What a way to start the evening.

The wine selection was provided by Bordeaux wine. My favorite was the white wine but there was also a red and rose option. For the non wine drinkers, there was a beer selection available. The non-alcohol option was a delicious Berry-Basil Lemonade that was very sweet and topped with club soda. If not properly mixed, it was a bit too sweet or too bland but once mixed together properly, it was an awesome treat. After about 15 minutes, Tren’ness got on the microphone and welcomed all the guest to the dinner. What made her greeting very special is that she called us her new family members and made us all feel welcome and at home. She then introduced her co-host Carla Hall, who many were happy to see and recognized from The Chew, and she too welcomed us all to the event. Both of the hostesses got the guest excited about the evening and directed us to the dining room for the start of the meal. Because we are all family, it was open seating and I made my way to a table in the middle of the room. After finding my seat, I got in the short line to meet Carla and took my picture with her. She too had a warm personality and was a pleasure to meet. I look forward to visiting her restaurant opening this summer in Brooklyn called Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen. Go girl!

IMAG0772Once I took my seat, a lovely group of people were present and a very beautiful plated salad awaited me. It was a watermelon salad with feta cheese, red onions, and a balsamic vinaigrette dressing. This salad was a wonderful start to the evening and catered to the theme of the event. The pieces of watermelon that had been mixed with the red onion and the cheese took on those flavors were much better than the other pieces on their own. During the salad course, severs brought out a little cornbread muffin and left pieces of sliced dinner rolls on the table. The biggest disappointment of the bread was that it was served cold. There was nothing really spectacular about the bread but the dinner rolls were a great vessel to sop up the balsamic vinaigrette dressing.

Just before the main courses came out, we had a visit from the Harlem Eatup founder himself Marcus Samuelsson. He was all smiles and very happy to see the vision come into fruition. He and Tren’ness are close because they are neighbors with their business just a few doors away from each other. He was very approachable and took the time to greet guest and take picture.  I was able to greet him and get a picture of him myself with the help of my new table friends. This solo evening is going well!! IMAG0776

All of the main courses were severed family style in an effort to keep a family block party atmosphere. The DJ kept people dancing in their seats and singing their favorite tunes. The first dish served was the Hemingway Style Sliders (prepared by Tren’ness) that were passed around the table. Next was the Collard Green Slaw. The star dish served was Nashville’s Hot Chicken (prepared by Carla). When I tell you that this chicken was seasoned to perfect and served nice and hot, it wonderful. The sliders were also delicious and the meat was tender and the sauce with the meat added extra flavor that did not overpower the flavor of the meat. I am not a fan of stewed collard greens but this slaw gave me a different perspective of the vegetable. Sliced carrots, radish, and crunchy beans also added to the slaw and served with a tangy dressing that was lightly added to not drench the components of the slaw. I truly enjoyed this dish though I was not expecting to do so. But again, that Hot Chicken was amazing and luckily, will be served at Carla’s new restaurant in various spice levels.

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In between the next course, Tren’ness got us all on our feet and started a Soul Train line. At this point, I found out that Neil Patrick Harris and his family were present at the dinner. We all went down the soul train line and I danced my heart out with the cohosts. There are pictures posted on my Instagram page @finediningdiva as well as a video with myself and Carla Hall also dancing. I had a ball! After we were nice and hot, we sat back down for the next portion of the meal.

We began with the Grilled BBQ Beef Short Ribs (prepared by Tren’ness) with Rice Perlow and Fried Cornmeal-Crusted Tilapia with a mustard sauce and a Sweet and Yukon Gold Potato Salad. The short ribs were small but the sauce was quite flavorful. I was happy with the flavors of this this dish as well as the tenderness of the meat.  There were large cut onions and bell pepper that added a layer of crunch to the dish as well. The rice itself was cooked to perfection and had an added flavor from the pork cooked with the rice. I could not quite place it but the flavors reminded me of the smoked ham hocks my mother and grandmother cook with their beans. Anyway, it was wonderful. The fried fish was also delicious and impressively prepared considering that I am not a fan of tilapia. If I was not told that it was tilapia, I could have easily mistaken it for something else. Dipping the dish in the mustard was unexpectedly not bad.  However, I only got a small piece of the tilapia given all the negative press that I’ve read about tilapia farms. The potato salad was flavorful but not memorable. It did add to the backyard BBQ theme of the dinner.

After this course, we took a break and Tren’ness told the inspiring story of her grandmother, who passed in 2012, and how the infamous restaurant came to be. What a wonderful accomplishment to celebrate 54 years this year! After a musical treat from a Harlem singer, she had us shout “Fried Chicken” and out walked the servers with baskets of delicious Sylvia’s world famous fried chicken. They even had Sylvia’s hot sauce to accompany the chicken. The chicken was piping hot, very well seasoned, and had a wonderful crunch. It was everything one could want from fried chicken and more!! I didn’t think I had enough room for the added bonus but, there is always room for fried chicken.

Another bonus was that our table had leftover rice and short ribs and I requested a box to take them with me. They happily provided me with the to-go box. A photographer at the event wanted to know how I enjoyed myself and made sure to share that I thoroughly I enjoyed myself but also mentioned the food blog.  In an effort to give a rave review, he gave me a few bonus pieces of chicken to help me remember the fabulous event.  I didn’t think he was serious, but it was definitely a welcomed bonus and came in handy after a late night of dancing the following evening. Everyone was so friendly and accommodating.  I cannot wait to visit the actual restaurant during my next NYC visit.

After much more dancing, the dessert trays came out. This was chaotic considering there was no announcement of the dessert. The dessert tray included pound cake, banana pudding, and lemon chess pie bars. I was quite disappointed with the dessert options. The desserts were all the same colors and the presentation did not excite me in the least. I expected more like a warm cobbler, pie, chocolate, something. The pound cake was just alright but nothing to lose your mind over. I did finish my lemon chess bar which I enjoyed but the lemon flavor was very subtle. I was quite disappointed with the banana pudding. I make a very popular and delicious version myself and this pudding did nothing for me. It wasn’t all that sweet, and I did not get any fresh bananas in my few bites. The pudding itself was quite thick but did have much flavor. The meringue on top was pretty to look at but did not do anything special for the dessert either. Needless to say, I was not impressed.

Overall, I had a wonderful evening. At the end of the dinner, Tren’ness called out all of the catering staff and publicly thanked them for their participation and hard work to make the evening a success. I will definitely make it a point to attend another one of these dinners because it was definitely worth the $85 price tag plus the service fees. Everyone I sat with at my table had a wonderful time, and I actually got a few new blog followers which was an added bonus. At the stroll, I spoke to a gentlemen who was disappointed that they did not have any liquor options and also did not feel like the event was well organized. He claimed that he did not get to try all the foods served and became frustrated with the event and left early. He was happy that after 3 hours, someone finally got him a scotch from the restaurant next door. But my thought is that, you cannot please everyone and I was certainly satisfied with my experience. Thank you Tren’ness and Carla for the amazing evening and fantastic meal.

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