NEW YORK – Over the past 10 years, Harlem – or at least parts of it – has undergone dramatic changes. The northern Manhattan neighborhood once known as a high-crime area has become a haven for hipsters banished by high real estate prices elsewhere. One of the most popular magnets for the “foreigners” is South Harlem, up Central Park West.
Not far from there, on Frederick Douglass Boulevard near 112th and 113th streets, the Israeli chef Kfir Ben-Ari has opened his French restaurant RDV, short for Rendezvous. A few blocks farther on Frederick Douglass is his coffee shop Caféine.
RDV, which opened eight months ago, is a modern French bistro specializing in southeastern French cuisine. At Caféine, Ben-Ari brings his baked goods from the Champagne region, he won’t say exactly where. You can find croissants, pain au chocolat, apple pastry and savory croissants.
Despite all the French chic, at RDV and Caféine you’ll hear non-stop Hebrew. In addition to Ben-Ari there are the brothers Adam, Din and Ran Elnatan, who wait tables and often switch back and forth between the two eateries. Rinat Brodach also waits tables. When she’s not there, she’s a fashion designer. No doubt the Israeli gastronomic invasion has reached Harlem.
RDV isn’t very big. The color scheme is white and turquoise, or more precisely, Napoli blue, and it seats only 32 people, with six more places at the bar. The food is good, the atmosphere pleasant. I had a very good kale salad, with the kale chopped small, and an orange vinaigrette dressing with toasted pumpkin seeds, fennel, white peach in a marjoram marinade, grilled garlic and goat cheese wrapped in a seared Provencal herb wrap.
One of the tests of a restaurant is the squid. If the octopus is good, you’re in the right direction. And Ben-Ari is working on this test. His octopus comes from Gibraltar and is cooked in vegetable broth and Champagne vinegar, in a citrus marinade, smoked paprika, olive oil and roasted on the grill. It’s served with piquillo pepper, pickled red onion and chickpea salad with za’atar (hyssop).
Beets, which have become the hit of the year in New York, are a star at RDV too. Ben-Ari says he invented the dish that he calls Beet Tart Tatin at a previous venue that has since closed. He slow-roasts the beets all night over salt in a medium-low oven. Then he adds goat cheese mixed with soft herbs and puff pastry. Everything sits in layers, served with balsamic dressing and herbs.
You should definitely try the fried oysters. These delights, which come from the East Coast, are deep-fried and sprinkled with French pepper. They’re then served on a fresh, soft cheese with cucumbers, za’atar, toasted caraway seeds and sumac.
Ben-Ari, 41, originally from Herzliya, has been living in the United States for 14 years. After his Israeli army service in an elite unit, he worked at the Dan Acadia and the Daniel Hotel and then, like many young Israelis, went on a trip to South America.
“It wasn’t a party trip,” Ben-Ari says. “It lasted nine months, and for me it was all about restaurants, learning cooking techniques and ingredients I didn’t know. The meat I had in Uruguay, for example, was the best I ever had in my life.”
When he returned to Israel he knew that what he wanted to do was cook. He eventually went to Lyon, France, to study at the Institut Paul Bocuse for two and a half years. When the successful New York French chef Daniel Boulud visited the school, he and Ben-Ari connected. And so, after Lyon, Ben-Ari found himself in the kitchen of Boulud’s famed restaurant Daniel. He says he wasn’t sorry to leave France.
“I love French food and wine, but I had a problem with the anti-Semitism when I lived in France,” he says. “I found myself in conflicts with Arabs in France, and I even had a problem with my teachers at the Bocuse school.”
After his time at Daniel, Ben-Ari worked for nine years at a Provencal-style restaurant in the Meatpacking District, until it closed. He got to Harlem looking for a place to live in New York with his Uruguayan wife.
Ben-Ari says he decided to move there because the real estate prices were more reasonable, and also given the financial crisis in the United States. “The neighborhood has become much livelier, with restaurants and coffee shops, and lots of Europeans are moving here, including lots of French people,” he says.
“The change is so clear that some of the locals today feel uncomfortable that the neighborhood’s changing, and they’re worrying that the real estate prices will shoot up and they’ll find themselves out.” Some people have started calling it SoHa for South Harlem, a play on SoHo downtown.
“They used to talk about crime but I hardly feel it,” Ben-Ari says. “ Once there was some shooting not far away, but I feel safe all in all. Everything here is very casual, too. You can walk around in a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops. Nobody judges you.”
For dessert at RDV, try the Creme Brulee, which soaks up the aroma of lavender and vanilla. You should also try the terrine de chocolat, with carmelized oranges and salty vanilla.
In short, if you want to see Harlem from a French-Israeli perspective, RDV definitely marks a growing trend.