So here’s the thing. Most of my experiences at Clay, a New American restaurant in Harlem that’s beginning to light up the NYC food scene (see here, here, and here), have been great. I live nearby and have spent a few solo evenings at the bar sipping wine and indulging in a decadent bowl of lobster bucatini; it’s the best pasta I’ve had all year.
I insisted my parents and my brother—also named Clay—dine here when they came to the city for my mom’s birthday to visit me (but mostly see Hamilton). We had a fabulous dinner and a fabulous time. The staff is warm and welcoming, and the space is a testament to pared-back sophistication sans pretention; it’s chic but just barely. But when I came back for brunch recently with two of my friends, something was off.
First of all, I was the first one to arrive, which almost never happens. I should have recognized I was in the upside down then, but the sun was shining on the corner of 123rd Street and Manhattan Avenue, and I stood there basking, hungry, and oblivious.
But my senses perked up when we were led toward the basement to be seated. I knew I had to take photos and requested to sit upstairs near natural light. After making us wait five minutes next to an empty table, the hostess eventually allowed us to sit and dine there. Stranger things have happened at restaurants, surely, but I was a little annoyed and suspicious of what seemed like an unnecessary wait.
Needless to say, we needed drinks ASAP and ordered two Bloody Marys and a mimosa to start. The Bloody Marys came accessorized with the requisite pickled veggies and were good but not great by my standards. I prefer Bloodys that push the limits of spice and flavor, but lovers of classic Bloody Marys will enjoy this version; my friend Darius liked his.
The mimosa was classic as well—though there’s the option to choose an apricot version, which is a nice option. It comes in a wine glass with just the right ratio fruit juice to champagne. My friend Jared really enjoyed his and even ordered a second.
From stalking Clay on social, I knew the English muffins were a must-order. They were warm and fluffy—more like biscuits or scones than an English muffin in my mind. Served with apricot jam, they’re a great starter for the table.
We also decided to split the wagyu tartare with pickled shallot, celery root, and cured egg yolk. The dish gets top marks for presentation and above average marks for flavor; I personally wished there was a bit more flavor, possibly more acid or spice, but maybe I just didn’t eat enough; the guys gobbled this one up pretty quickly. They clearly enjoyed it!
As you can see, the meal started off pretty well, but things went awry at the entrées. With five options, the selection is a bit on the minimalist side, so we didn’t have a ton to choose from. Darius ordered the 10-ounce grass-fed burger with Niman Ranch bacon New York white cheddar and hand-cut fries, and he was ultimately dissatisfied. He found it was too dry and crumbly and thought it lacked flavor.
Jared went with the grass-fed strip steak and eggs with hand-cut fries and soubise (an onion sauce). The same flavor situation presented itself here: He wanted more of it, but the steak was cooked well and wasn’t bad by any means. Picky eaters would probably be happy with its simplicity.
I thought the duck confit arepa with salsa verde and a fried egg sounded really intriguing, but when it arrived, I, too, was struck by the small size. (It’s worth noting that we’re clearly used to the fully stuffed plates that plague the United States and make a mockery of actual portion control, but still. This was brunch!) It tasted fine, but I wanted more something as well—more flavor, more moisture, something. I ate half of it and left the rest even though I was still kind of hungry.
To be completely transparent, I was slightly underwhelmed by our brunch at Clay. I hate to say it, but it’s true. But since I’ve had so many great dinner experiences there, I will definitely be back for more lobster pasta—and even to try brunch again. Who knows? It might have just been an off day.
I’m hoping this neighborhood staple (its building used to house the uptown hot spot Perks) sticks around because the people there are great—especially the manager, Andrea, who always says hello and remembers everyone—and I’ll cry if I can’t get lobster bucatini anymore.
The Bitches say: B. Clay is a great addition to the neighborhood and its dinner service, wine list, and cocktails are worth a visit, but we’d love to see some updates to its brunch service: namely, more flavorful entrées.
553 Manhattan Avenue
New York, NY
Clay serves brunch on Sundays from noon to 3:30 p.m.