HARLEM — Driving east on 145th Street recently, Rhonda Barnes, a retired city worker from the Bronx, did a double-take when she noticed Mountain Bird, a new restaurant hiding in plain sight between a real estate firm and apartment building entrance.
"It was an elegant restaurant and that's out of the norm for the neighborhood," said Barnes, 50. "Normally I just see Popeye's, a Chinese restaurant or delis."
Alexandra Morris, owner of Mountain Bird, which is dedicated to all varieties of fowl, said Barnes' response was common for customers who are discovering the six-week-old restaurant, between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and Frederick Douglass Boulevard.
"You have a Starbucks, Bank of America, a supermarket and lots of co-ops but no restaurants," said Morris.
In the past several years, hundreds of new co-op and rental apartments have been built along 145th Street between Lenox Avenue and Edgecombe Avenue, along with a Pathmark, Starbucks and a New York Sports Club. But area residents say the food and retail offerings haven't kept pace with the rate of other development.
Cynthia Lee, 50, a city worker, has lived on 145th Street for 20 years and described herself as a "food connoisseur" while she was in Mountain Bird one night trying to decide between the quail and the scallops.
"I'm used to going outside of the neighborhood to get stuff like this," Lee said. "This restaurant is finally doing the neighborhood justice."
Morris operated her high-end catering outfit Tastings NYC out of the location for six years until she and her husband purchased a building on 110th Street in East Harlem and relocated their growing business there.
"We wanted to make it like a small shop that you discover when you are driving through Europe," said Morris. "We knew we were taking a risk but we wanted to try."
Mountain Bird's landlord, Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement (HCCI), has marshaled $300 million in federal, state and city money to build new housing throughout Harlem, including on the 145th street corridor, and the 45,000 square foot Pathmark. The agency has also tried to lure two restaurants to 145th Street in the past.
One of the restaurants, Maroons, had a downtown location that went out of business in 2004, said Malcolm Punter, executive vice-president for real estate development at HCCI. Another restaurant decided not to expand there.
Punter said the presence of Mountain Bird was "a definite indicator of an increase in commercial services coming to the 145th Street corridor." The group recently received an Avenue NYC grant that it hopes to use to attract five businesses to the area next year.
Faith Hope Consolo, chairman of the retail group at Douglas Elliman Real Estate, said 145th Street will develop more retail as the 125th Street corridor becomes less affordable. National retailers such as Gap, Whole Foods, Burlington Coat factory, Red Lobster and a planned hotel at the old Victoria Theater are occupying that strip.
"The 125th Street corridor still is tops but Hamilton Heights is right behind it. Apartments are affordable versus the rest of Manhattan, and as these fill up — and they're selling quickly — shops and dining follow," said Consolo.
Mountain Bird seats only 19 people and does not deliver because the selections are meant to be enjoyed straight away. It is whimsically decorated with lace curtains, rooster lamps that emit warm lighting and the name of the restaurant spelled out in white tile across the floor.
Chef Kenichi Tajima is Japanese and trained in France. His dishes tend toward classic French with some twists because of the restaurant's mission to use every part of the various fowl it cooks.
The menu has an hors d'oeuvre of four small bites that include fried chicken combs (that red flap of skin on the head of chickens) with honey mustard tartar sauce, a chicken wing with the meat pulled up to one end to resemble a lollipop with black truffle dressing, duck gizzard and heart on a garlic herb crispy roll and chicken liver pate with port wine gelee.
Appetizers include a shrimp bisque mac and cheese and foie gras dumpling soup. For the main dishes, which range in price from $13 to $21, there's turkey drumstick goulash, chicken schnitzel and Moulard duck duo, among other offerings.
On weekends, the small restaurant fills up quickly, a sign that the eatery's reputation is spreading by word of mouth. And then there's the man who comes in every Sunday night to pick up dinner because the restaurant is closed on Mondays.
But not everyone is impressed. One man walked in one afternoon and looked at the pastry offerings before announcing that the brownie looked good. Told the price, he recoiled.
"Four dollars for one brownie?" the man said before turning and walking out.
Newly-minted regulars like Lee are not surprised that some in the neighborhood would have that response but believe the restaurant won't have trouble gaining a foothold.
"There are other people like me in this neighborhood and I'm always telling people to stop by and support this place because we want it to stay," said Lee.
Barnes was so impressed that she brought her friend Robin Burrison, 45, who is planning to open her own pastry shop.
"It's not what you expect. It's quaint. They may be starting a trend," said Burrison who is now considering 145th Street as a location for her shop.
Manager Keiko Tajima said Mountain Bird also has expansion plans in mind and would love to open another restaurant on 145th Street.
"We are thankful for our customers, but our customers always thank us for opening up," she said.