Our latest installment of Quick Bites brings us to Harlem for some of the best rice bowls in town.
One of the great restaurant trends of the past five years or so is that of accomplished chefs with fancy pedigrees putting their talent, energy, and love into an affordably-priced counter service restaurant so that we all can enjoy their creations on a regular basis. Brooks Headley's Superiority Burger remains the genre's gold standard, but other examples abound, including Alex Stupak's Al Pastor, Pierre Tham's Teranga, Daniel Humm's Made Nice, and, as of last week, JJ Johnson's FIELDTRIP, located on Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem.
Johnson made his name at The Cecil and, more recently, has been running the show at Henry at Life Hotel in Nomad. FIELDTRIP is a different sort of place, a rice-bowl spot where nothing on the tight but impressively varied menu costs more than twelve bucks. Johnson's aim here, beyond cooking people delicious food, is to showcase the diversity, in both flavor and texture, of the grain at the center of so many of the world's great cuisines. "Rice is Culture" is the motto here, and Johnson wants to take you exploring.
The space itself is spacious and comfortable, with seating for about twenty at tables in the back and communal standing tables up front, which opens out onto the busy avenue. There's a colorful map delineating where each type of rice comes from, and 1980s-era photographs of the neighborhood on the wall as well. You order at the cashier by the open kitchen, and you'll get a text when your food is ready. Napkins, utensils, and water are all self-serve, and please be polite and clean your own table when you leave.
I ate most of the FIELDTRIP menu over the weekend and, bottom line, everything is thoughtfully conceived, surprisingly complex, and the five different kinds of rice at the foundation of each of the main dishes were cooked to perfection. In other words, though I had my favorites, you can't really go wrong here, so order with confidence across the board.
The Braised Beef, with a generous portion of tender meat, features Texas brown rice and spicy black beans, with a turmeric yogurt sauce adding some additional texture. The Salmon bowl also packed some fire, seemingly emanating the wonderfully chewy China black rice. The roasted fish was a little dry, but the piri piri sauce was there to help. The Shrimp had a nice snap to them, served with Thai Sticky Rice, a bit of toasted coconut, and some lively green curry.
Fried Crispy Chicken comes covered in a BBQ sauce that's sweeter than I generally like, though the West African Carolina Gold rice in the bowl eats like a luxury item. Finally, the Veggie bowl, starring that Nigerian staple Jollof Basmati and a whole mess of charred broccoli, stood tall among all the animal proteins. A slab of buttery Nana's Bread stuck in there ensured that you would not leave hungry. The vegetarian Quinoa Bao Buns were less successful in that regard, but the Yucca Puffs that came with them were fun, and worthy of a solo side order if you want something with crunch. And while the Crab Pockets taste more like cream cheese than crustacean, the texture's good and, like everything else at FIELDTRIP, the price is low enough to warrant a try.
Skip the Soft Serve until the machine's ready; they'll just give you Sugar Hill Creamery "regular" ice cream in the interim, and you can walk up three blocks to the parlor for a complete menu of that.
If you live up here FIELDTRIP should definitely be added into your regular rotation. The food feels healthy, it's inexpensive, and it's made with a lot of skill and care. Expansion seems plausible.
FIELDTRIP is located at 109 Malcolm X Boulevard between 115th and 116th Streets, and is currently open Wednesday through Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m (917-639-3919; fieldtripnyc.com)