HARLEM — As a kid growing up on Long Island, Cassandra Quinlan-Ashford relished Sundays, when she would come to Harlem with her minister parents. After church they'd hit now-shuttered local restaurants familiar to longtime Harlemites such as Pan Pan, Wells and even an eatery hidden in a brownstone.
"You'd walk inside and there was this whole other world. The owner would be cooking fried chicken and potato salad. There'd be some guys playing dominoes and some women talking in the back," said Quinlan-Ashford. "I want to bring some of that back to Harlem."
As the executive chef of Harvist, a new restaurant that is part of My Image Studios LLC (MIST), a $21 million performance space at 40 West 116th St. between Lenox and Fifth avenues, Quinlan-Ashford said her first menu reflects that old-Harlem vibe.
"The menus are a reinterpretation of my Southern background mixed with my American cuisine training," said Quinlan-Ashford who has worked at Judson Grill, Aquavit and Tabla.
Quinlan-Ashford calls it "rustic American with a low-country influence."
Take the pork osso buco for example. The pork shank is braised with beer and chicken and veal stock. Underneath is a layer of black-eyed peas with mushrooms and bacon topped with pear salsa made with cilantro and red onions.
Shrimp and grits is another soul-food classic. Quinlan-Ashford makes hers with prawns with the head on, served with slab bacon soaked in buttermilk and fried. The millet grits are straight from North Carolina.
"We make sexy, creamy grits," Quinlan-Ashford said.
After a couple of nights of trial runs, Harvist opens to the public Thursday night.
"This will be one of the top-flight restaurants in Harlem," said Roland Laird, MIST's chief executive officer.
On a busy day before a family and friends dinner, Quinlan-Ashford, in her first executive chef position, has been at the restaurant since early morning.
The line chefs snap to attention when she enters the kitchen. One is cutting greens, the butcher is preparing the pork shank for the osso buco. Quinlan-Ashford is trying to get a maintenance worker to fix a clock in the kitchen.
"I don't think it has sunk in yet. We are all about trying to get ready to make this right," she said.
Harlem is in the midst of a restaurant boom and Quinlan-Ashford realizes that Harvist will be compared to other establishments such as celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson's Red Rooster Harlem.
"We are a different beast, a different animal," she said about the comparison. She envisions the restaurant more in line with Laird's vision as Harlem's living room as opposed to the celebrity glare surrounding Red Rooster.
"We are more casual. We have a different vibe," said Quinlan-Ashford."Maybe you'll come here after seeing one of the shows at the theater or you'll come here for dinner and see that we have a show going on and buy a ticket."
Laird said he sees the restaurant as a continuation of the growth that has occurred in Harlem.
"We want Harlem to be a restaurant destination the way Midtown is. To do that, we all have to be on point," he said.
The menu at the restaurant will change with the seasons. Quinlan-Ashford is working on her spring menu now and is already planning trips to the green market to pick out the freshest, in-season vegetables.
Mic Sean, CEO and creative director of the High End Agency, which produces comedy shows at MIST, was dining at the restaurant Wednesday with friend Lindsay Marie.
Sean was impressed with the filet mignon and the sweet potato and apple cobbler.
"I liked the presentation and the ambience of the restaurant," he said. "This is filling a void in Harlem."
Marie said the venue added an "artistic and cultural value" to the experience that it's hard to get elsewhere. "It's a jewel of Harlem but it's going to attract people from all over the city," she said.
Quinlan-Ashford said she might not have taken the job if it wasn't in Harlem. Hiring and training kitchen staff from the area is one of her major goals.
"It's not just about the food. I have the opportunity to train people and give people jobs," Quinlan-Ashford said of her staff of 20 that will likely grow. "We are building from the ground up."