Food + Wine News Desk Oct. 31, 2017
In a sleek corner space in Harlem that once housed historic Perk's nightclub, Clay is a new American farm-to-table restaurant and natural wine bar on Manhattan Avenue. The vision of long-time Harlem residents, Executive Chef Gustavo Lopez, Wine Director Gabriela Davogustto, and Bar Director Andrea Needell Matteliano, Clay is at once an homage to the rich cultural background of the neighborhood and a force propelling its dining scene forward. Every detail from the meticulous sourcing of ingredients from accountable producers, to the carefully curated playlist from internationally known music director Javier Peral, and handmade plates from Brooklyn-based Noble Plateware has been lovingly thought out. As a result, the restaurant strikes that rare balance between neighborhood comfort and destination-worthy draw.
The team has deep ties to the community, and an unyielding passion for the business of food. Bar Director Andrea Needell Matteliano has lived in Harlem for almost 20 years, and spent time behind the bar at Perk's, the very jazz club that inhabited the space before Clay. As head bartender at neighborhood staple Vinateria, she honed her signature seasonal approach to cocktails, and most recently, she was part of the opening bar team at Agern-Noma co-founder Claus Meyer's first NYC project that garnered a Michelin star and three stars from The New York Times.
Wine Director Gabriela Davogustto is an ICE Culinary Arts graduate. She began her career cooking at Wallsé and Boqueria, but soon discovered that wine was her true passion. Stints in the beverage programs at Locanda Verde and L'Apicio prepared her for her first solo position crafting the wine list and beverage program at Vinateria, where she was recognized by Decanter Magazine as having created one of the 16 best wine lists in NYC. She has completed all of the wine programs at ICE, and is nearing completion of her WSET diploma.
Executive Chef Gustavo Lopez has a Culinary Arts Degree from ICE, and cooked at Terroir (Marco Canora), Lupa (Mario Batali & Lidia Bastianich) and DBGB (Daniel Boulud), before helming the kitchen at Vinateria. At Clay he showcases local, seasonal ingredients, humanely sourced meat and sustainable seafood, with a keen eye for artistic plating. A typical meal might begin with a creative amuse bouche such as maitake + trumpet mushroom chips emulsified with tapioca powder, or housemade ricotta with fermented raw, organic honey from the Finger Lakes on housemade sourdough bread. Ideal appetizers for sharing include the American Wagyu Tartare with pickled shallot, celery root, cured egg yolk and housemade lavash, indulgent Chicken Liver with preserved fig and toast, and a lovely fall salad of roasted red & golden beets, hon shimeji mushrooms, candied pistachios and red oak leaf dusted with powdered beet. A trio of pastas--all made in-house--showcase the bounty of the fall season; light-as-air Gnocchi is delicately fried with butternut squash, hazelnut, mushrooms and pickled fresno; Garganelli is tossed with crumbled housemade pork sausage and kale; and Bucatini is enhanced with lobster, bottarga, Calabrian chile and breadcrumbs.
Mains are elegant and sophisticated, while remaining hearty and approachable. Standouts include Confit Duck Leg with celeriac, smoked faro, collard greens and tart blueberry gastrique, Pork Tenderloin with apple mostarda, potato and charred romaine, Chicken Breast with heirloom rainbow carrot, nigella, chicken jus and potato, and American Wagyu Strip Steak with soubise, yuzu, hen of the woods and chimicurri.
Desserts are not to be missed at Clay. Chef Gustavo's Budino is made with Colombian chocolate (a nod to his heritage) that he procures through a specialty importer, and dresses with spiced candied pecans and meringue chips. Yogurt Panna Cotta with vanilla bean, fig, red wine gastrique and butter crumble, and Mini Doughnuts with lemon verbena and lovage round out the offerings.
Ms. Davogustto's natural wine list is a carefully curated collection featuring labels from the Canary Islands, Spain, France, Italy, Germany and South Africa to name a few. It was built with exploration in mind, and ensures that repeat visitors will be kept interested and engaged. Her interest in natural wine extends beyond its trendy appeal, and she makes sure that every bottle on her list is balanced.
The cocktails from Ms. Matteliano compliment the farm-to-table fare, and feature a similar focus on thoughtful sourcing and natural ingredients. The menu showcases small, passionate local spirit producers, and each cocktail was named for an iconic jazz tune. The Traveling Light is built with vodka, lemon, egg white, mint, and the same raw honey that dresses the ricotta amuse bouche. Other highlights include the Nine Below Zero: aquavit, birch, malort, maple, smoked salt, and orange bitters, and the Continuum, with mezcal, absinthe rouge, strawberry, lemon, basil and lavender bitters. Matteliano's beer list is also very notable. She stocks hard to find favorites like Brooklyn's Grimm Artisanal Ales, and Plan Bee Farm Brewery's Barn Beer.
From Architectural Designer Roberto Sosa, the space was designed to evoke the earthen charm of Clay's namesake material. Large French doors with floor-to-ceiling windows give way to the intimate dining room, where modern white porcelain fixtures cast soft light onto natural wood tables. A muted gray painting of fragmented clay pottery adorns the far wall. A white marble bar running the length of the space leads to a downstairs dining room with a rough-hewn white stone wall and terracotta flooring.
Clay is located at 553 Manhattan Avenue (at 123rd St.), New York, NY 10027, 212-729-1850, www.claynyc.com, and is open Tues-Thurs 5:30pm-11pm, Fri-Sat 5:30pm-12am, and Sunday for brunch 12pm-3:30pm, dinner 5:30pm-10pm.