As self-proclaimed â€œfoodiesâ€ my husband and I are avid Food Network watchers. Coupled with my husbandâ€™s subscription to Bon Appetit magazine we often impress visitors (be they friend or family) with our impulsive decision to make a recipe of mac and cheese while spicing it up with salsa. Or making a batch of chicken that isnâ€™t traditional barbeque but instead contains dijon and curry powder. It is with that same intrigue to try something new, yet familiar, that we decided to take our mothers to Melbaâ€™s restaurant on 114th Street and Frederick Douglass Blvd.
The ambiance at Melbaâ€™s is romantic. The chandeliers are slightly lit and there are small candles floating in glasses filled with a third of water. The black tiling on the outside trickles inside and goes along the bar catering to the dark and appealing tone ambiance inside that spreads to the black tables, chairs, and floors. As I walked in I couldnâ€™t help but take in the small size as well as the fact that it was quaint and reminded me of my familyâ€™s dining room during holiday dinners when I was a child. The initial murmur from a few patrons soon wears off and the buzz of a larger crowd laughing, chewing, and groaning in pleasure fills the intimate room where youâ€™re allowed to enjoy comfort food in an elegant atmosphere. Itâ€™s a place where you donâ€™t feel overdressed in a suit or under dressed in denim. The staff was attentive and quick, gathering plates as necessary, bringing out dishes lined along their arms as you may look on hungrily towards your neighborâ€™s plate and begin to wonder if youâ€™d made a mistake once the aroma whiffs your way.
Prior to the main course our party dabbled in the appetizer selection by ordering Melbaâ€™s spring roll, a delectable mix of red rice, collard greens, black-eyed peas, and a hint of cheese in the flaky roll. Along with that we had calamari which tasted as chewy with a familiar crust and southern crab cakes that were new to me and my husband, yet the southern element definitely made me a fan.
Melba Wilson, a woman with a bright smile and great skill in the kitchen who also happens to be related to the famous Sylvia (yes of Sylviaâ€™s Restaurant fame), is the woman behind this small jewel uptown. She was featured on an episode of Bobby Flayâ€™s Throwdown. The competition posed to Mr. Flay forth was to make a sweet and savory dish that many of us may be familiar with in name, but not by taste. When one thinks of chicken and waffles the name Roscoe usually comes before it. But Melbaâ€™s is staking a claim in that with her succulent and golden Southern fried chicken beside four quarters of thick and crispy eggnog waffles. Topped with her signature strawberry butter made with fresh strawberries and grenadine my husband was halfway through his plate before it had touched the table. My mother-in-law shared in the delight of that tasty dish while I had the BBQ Turkey meatloaf with soft and tangy collard greens and roasted garlic mashed potatoes. My mother had the chicken with tres mac and cheese. My husband also took the liberty to order a few additional sides: a cheddar grit cake that made him think of grits and cornbread at the same time, chili onion rings that werenâ€™t spicy at all, and the tres mac and cheese (heâ€™s a connoisseur of all things mac and cheese) that was good, but couldnâ€™t combat the baked mac & cheese weâ€™ve had at home.
I admit that my eagerness to try as much as possible overtook me in tasting the amount that I did. And by the end of our dining experience I was too full to try dessert. Even though the sound of red velvet cake, sweet potato pie, and green apple sorbet made me yearn for a slight notch in my stomach to make way for sweets. The crowd was mixed with young and old, couples and friends, Black and White at the bar or at tables. Young men with gold chains and oversized sports jerseys enjoyed a beer, appetizers, and a chat with the bartender as though this were their usual hang out spot on a Friday night. Rather than be in a sports bar or other why not go to Melbaâ€™s to get some salmon and Sam Adams? Men in suits or corduroy sat in a crowd of four or six laughing, sniffing their plates, and enjoying their chicken or sea bass. In the end it was a cornucopia of good taste for anyone and everyone interested in comfort food. No matter where youâ€™re from food is a unifying factor and it couldnâ€™t be truer at Melbaâ€™s.
WORDS: Jennifer Baker-Henry
About the Author (Author Profile)A native New Yorker Jennifer Baker-Henry has been writing since she entered the academic institution and continues to do so every moment she gets. Jennifer received her MFA from The New School's graduate program in Creative Writing and is an alum of The City College of New York's baccalaureate program in English. She works as a production editor in academic publishing, while also freelancing as an ESL tutor, proofreader, and writer for the urban e-zine AroundHarlem.com. Jennifer was a mentor for Girls Write Now and now volunteers for the organization. She's also a writer-in-residence with the Jentel Artist Residency Program from April-May 2011. Jennifer is working on a variety of short stories in addition to a collection centered around race and family, and a YA novel. You can see her writing and baking on her website at www.jennifernbaker.com.
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