Chef JJ Johnson has saved Henry at Life Hotel from “the brink of failure” with his diverse, spice-laden, “pan-African” menu, Times critic Pete Wells writes in his one-star review. Johnson took over Henry in August to serve food of the African diaspora, after making a name for himself as the executive chef at the Cecil in Harlem. This is his first solo venture with a partnership stake.
For starters, Wells recommends ordering a full dozen of the littleneck clams, which are battered with rice flour and served with shaved fennel, Asian pear, and piri-piri sauce and “went quickly” at his table. He also highlights the tuna tartare, topped with curried peanut brittle and benne seeds, which are the heirloom variety of sesame that was brought to North America on slave ships. “When your meal at Henry is over, you may wish you had been sent home with a world map showing the history of forced African migration and spice-trade routes,” Wells writes.
As for the mains, Wells is partial to the scallops and the bone-in ribs, writing:
Apart from the seared scallops in a remarkably good hominy broth with cilantro pistou, those bone-in ribs are the most rewarding main course. The rewards are not so much the short ribs themselves, though they are flavorful and tender; the thrill of the dish is in the battery of little sides like stir-fried millet, spiced black beans and a hoisin sauce I wanted to take home to keep on hand for Chinese-food emergencies.
Not all the dishes dazzled, however, like the shrimp and pork dumplings, which Wells calls “nondescript little blobs.” He was underwhelmed by the seafood boil, too.
In addition to the food, the critic also calls attention to Johnson’s attempts to hire racially diverse staffs for front and back of house, which Wells says “is one of the surest ways to diversify the audience.” One star.