At just 275-square-feet, Belle Harlem is a tiny restaurant tucked next to the historic townhouses of Harlem’s Strivers’ Row, and according to Times critic Pete Wells, the bite-sized joint packs a punch. In his one-star review today, Wells writes that Belle Harlem is “something rare not just in Harlem but in all Manhattan.”
He contributes much of that singularity to owners Darryl and Melissa Burnette, who remain a constant presence at the restaurant three years in. In fact, they make up most of the staff and only employ one other person, a sous chef named Alex Geudelekian who assists chef Darryl in the kitchen, according to Wells. “I never quite felt as if I were attending a dinner party in the Burnettes’ apartment, which is the feeling they say they’re going for, but I always knew I was in a place that somebody cared about,” Wells writes.
The menu starts with small plates, although Wells notes that nothing about the food at Belle Harlem is too small. There are also surprising dishes like spring rolls stuffed with macaroni and cheese, as well as other bigger dishes:
This is also where you’ll find the cheese-steak crostini, as well as spring rolls stuffed with macaroni and cheese — kid food in a fried shell, yes, but a bacon marmalade with fresh dill makes it unexpectedly complex, a chef’s dish.
The bottom of the menu is more substantial: The pan-seared, smoked pork tenderloin, for instance, is bigger than what usually crosses a 12-seat tasting counter. This month, Mr. Burnette is laying the barrels of pork over a cherry compote with basil leaves, with a few snap peas for added sweetness. He brings a keen sense of what to do with ingredients as they come into season to the vegetables he grows on the roof of the Burnettes’ apartment building, a block away.
The small space affects service and comfort, and Wells doesn’t enjoy all of the dishes like the duck breast that comes with a “bitter arugula sauce and a poached pear that tastes like alcohol.” But he recommends dessert, like an homage to the ho-ho. One star.