HARLEM — Cedric Lecendre was reluctant to lend his name to the small French bistro that he opened on St. Nicholas Avenue with co-owner Fabrizio Khanlari and managing partner Dard Coaxum last month.
"It's a bit of pressure. It's my name on the door," Lecendre said of his first ownership effort. But he comes from the restaurant business — his family owns Le Bilboquet on the Upper East Side.
The three friends decided that having Lecendre's name adorn the restaurant was necessary to create the type of casual neighborhood eatery that was their ultimate goal.
"I'm a believer in the personal touch. Our guests come in and ask for Cedric," said Khanlari, who has operated restaurants in London.
"It's a small bistro, so people come in and expect to see one of us."
And they usually do. Located in the space formerly occupied by Mojo, Cedric, located on St. Nicholas Avenue and 119th Street, may be the most talked-about new restaurant in Harlem since celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson opened Red Rooster on Lenox Avenue.
The three friends collaborated on everything from the layout and decorations to the music playing at just the right level in the background.
"Harlem is a stage. You need your best outfit. You have to perform. Everyone is watching. Everyone talks," said Coaxum, a model who is known around the neighborhood as "The Prince of Harlem."
Since opening, the restaurant has seen its share of celebrities, including actors Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Noth and rapper NaS. But in an attempt to keep the neighborhood vibe, reservations are not taken. Prices range from $16 to $25 for an entree and average $10 for an appetizer. Servings are generous.
Although the restaurant is a French Bistro, there are still dishes like fish and chips and jerk chicken on the menu.
"You are not going to see fish and chips in a Paris bistro, but we had to do dishes in Harlem that would satisfy the locals," said Khanlari.
In a tribute to the diversity of the neighborhood, some of the most popular dishes are the curried mussels and the tuna tartar with avocado. Most nights, there's a mix of people of different races and ages filling the 45-seat venue.
"My two years of living in Harlem have made me feel more at home than any other place I've lived in my 17 years in New York," said Lecendre. "I wouldn't have opened a place somewhere I didn't feel at home."
Even in light of Harlem's recent restaurant boom, the three see opportunity.
"The Red Rooster has helped to make Harlem a destination. People are now looking for new restaurants to visit," said Coaxum.
Harlem is a neighborhood that is "growing toward a better future," added Lecendre.
He said consistency is a problem at many of the Harlem restaurants he's visited, while Khanlari said much of the food just hasn't been very tasty.
With dishes liked grilled salmon with ratatouille, red beet salad with goat cheese and pan seared duck breast with cherry sauce, the goal is to offer consistently good food with a good environment.
"We put a lot of effort into this," said Khanlari.
Khanlari, Coaxum and Lecendre say they hope to create a restaurant that is good enough to give them enough cache and capital to open another venture in Harlem.
"The way things are turning out, I couldn't be happier to have my name on the door," said Lecendre.