Harvist Harlem’s Chef Cassandra Quinlan-Ashford Loves Beer and Fat
There is a chef worth traveling uptown to meet in Harlem at Harvist, and her name is Cassandra Quinlan-Ashford.
Quinlan-Ashford has been flexing her muscles attempting to find the perfect beer for her mussels and house-made sausage dish. Her first attempts were unsuccessful, but she keeps trying. "One of these beers will make it into the mussels," she said.
This intrepid experimentation paired with a loyalty to her roots makes for a killer menu at Harvist, where the pork osso buco is braised in Pilsner and the mussels are (currently) cooked in white wine.
"It’s a weird thing. I used to drink simple beer but I can’t get enough of craft beers," she said before recommending a strawberry Belgian ale. "Big tough men come in here and order cases of that."
Gaining a reputation as Harlem’s latest "living room," Harvist is the newest addition to My Image Studios LLC (MIST), a new $21 million performance space at 40 West 116th St. The restaurant is like a living room you kick your shoes off in but still insist on using a coaster.
"It's really going to grow," she added. "We have a lot of great energy going, great people here."
Her plates are artfully presented but without a lick of fussiness. When asked by an indecisive customer what "that plate [was] over there," she answered, "that's a big ole’ piece of pork with black-eyed peas and mushrooms." Simple as that.
When asked why she adds homemade sausage to the mussels, she said, "I like fat." Who doesn't?
Just three weeks after Harvist’s grand opening, Quinlan-Ashford still has that new head chef glow, or maybe it’s sweat. "I miss my husband," she said. "And I don’t eat full meals some days. But it’s hard work, it’s what I love."
Before taking on her first executive chef role at Harvist, Quinlan-Ashford honed her American cuisine training at Judson Grill, Aquavit, L’Escale, and Tabla. She’s back in the kitchen tackling her own creations in Harlem. Her food, she says, is a "mix of her Southern background," resulting in a "rustic American" menu with a "Low-Country feel."
"Everything I make is a twist on something else," she said, and this is particularly evident in a soul-food classic: the shrimp and grits.
"Sure, I've heard of grits. I just never actually seen a grit before." Joe Pesci's line in My Cousin Vinny boils down how native New Yorkers may feel about grits, which rarely make it above the Mason-Dixon Line. But if you’ve ever doubted grits, look no further than Quinlan-Ashford’s version, served in a gigantic bowl with prawns (with the heads on), buttermilk-fried slab bacon, and braised greens. The South Carolina millet grits are cooked into fluffy submission for 90 minutes with a mix of vegetable stock, heavy cream, garlic, thyme, and mascarpone cheese.
Smaller plates offer familiar comfort with subtle twists, like deviled eggs with dollops of trout caviar on top.
Dessert, a sweet potato and apple cobbler with basil mousse, tastes like Thanksgiving in a bowl.
The lifeblood of the restaurant is the bar, where vivacious bartenders Nick Flammia and Jerri Nicole chat up patrons. The scene went from spotted to packed on a Wednesday evening, as visitors from a MIST book signing poured into the bar with the author.
Flammia introduced himself as a mixologist who doesn’t drink, and totally owns his space behind the bar. "They say I was made for this, I wouldn't trade a thing for this, and I get paid for this," he said. His Harvist Tea is a must-try, an impossibly smooth blend of sake, vodka, rum, and sweet tea.
The rush of a new restaurant comes with the reality of keeping up with competition. With the celebrity glare of Red Rooster nearby and Corner Social around the corner, stress might be expected for a newcomer. But the beer-loving chef isn’t worried. "I don't read other people's menus," she said. "I was never concerned with the trends. It limits your creativity. It's just my own process here."