In a city where going to an “exciting” restaurant can sometimes mean paying $90 to sit in a neon basement and eat things like marinated leaves with distilled pigs’ tears on top, it’s comforting to remember that places like Clay exist.
Clay is an upscale spot in Harlem where you can get a special-but-not-too-formal meal. There aren’t any potentially made-up ingredients like pigs’ tears on the menu here - instead, you’ll find pretty common flavor combinations, like pork belly and apple, gnocchi with squash and sage, and strip steak with potatoes and salsa verde. But just because you’ve probably experienced these ingredients before in one way or another, doesn’t mean you should skip them in search of something newer and flashier.
The pastas are important and deserve your attention - especially the perfectly al dente garganelli mixed with kale and chopped-up pieces of house-made pork sausage, and the chewy bucatini with rich short rib and parmesan. And while you should prepare to feel the same sort of unconditional commitment to your pasta that Dance Moms feel toward their 6-year-old jazz tap stars, that doesn’t mean you should neglect the entrees. The meat dishes (like a pork tenderloin so good it will distract you from the other very tasty things on the same plate) are excellent, but the black bass is probably the most memorable main course. It has crispy skin and a sour black garlic sauce that’s almost illogically good - we’re still trying to figure out what else is in it.
There are two dining rooms, and we like the one downstairs slightly more. It has low ceilings, a big, patterned banquette running along one wall, and a mural with pastel blue abstract shapes (kind of like if Picasso had a mood board during his blue period). This basement space is a bit more intimate than the one upstairs, but you can’t sit there every night - only Wednesdays through Saturdays. That said, if you’re just looking for a weeknight dinner or a solo meal at the bar, the minimalist-looking first floor will still have exactly the right volume of funk music (curated by a local DJ), plus lighting just dim enough to necessitate the occasional phone flashlight. Wherever you’re sitting, you’ll see the staff walk around greeting regulars, asking them things like which college their daughter finally decided on.
Clay doesn’t have a seven-course tasting menu representing all the continents on Earth, or a flight of truffle-infused cotton candies for you to spend too much money on. But we can say for sure that a meal here will better your night, and your personal eating life in general. So use it as often as possible for special occasions, dates, or especially exciting Wednesdays.
Clay’s pork belly is meatier than it is fatty, and comes with a thin piece of lardo on top, plus some not-too-sweet apple sauce on the side. If you’re sharing it, make sure everyone gets a chance to try the corners (they’re the crispiest parts).
Two kinds of warm, earthy beets (golden and red) with mushrooms, arugula, and pistachios sitting on top like a little forest crown.
This dish is shaped like a rectangular brick of gold, but instead of antiquated currency, you get finely chopped pieces of beef, a lot of shallot flavor, and crispy peppercorns. In a hypothetical robbery, we’d take a suitcase full.
The concept of winter on a plate could be very sad in theory. Until you try this al dente bucatini with carrots and short rib. Eating it sort of feels like the moment after you hear tomorrow’s a snow day - exciting and comforting at the same time.
This is not just a plate of buttery, perfectly-chewy noodles (but if it were, we’d still eat it). You also get a generous portion of salty house-made pork sausage, plus some kale. A must-order.
If you’ve ever tried to make gnocchi, you will appreciate how fluffy and pillowy-soft these are (in comparison to how yours might have turned out). Having said that, the sage butter sauce doesn’t add a ton of flavor, and we’d skip this in favor of the other pastas.
Well-cooked steak with some salsa verde - but the broccolini on the plate might be the secret star.
You’ll be tempted to Medieval Times this and pick it up with your hands like a turkey leg. It’s got crispy skin, tender meat, and a caramelized concord grape sauce that might inspire a future jelly sandwich.
Even if you’re not typically a fish person, you should seriously consider the black bass as a contender for the role of entree. It’s pretty mild - until you dip it in the little pile of mashed parsnips and the black garlic sauce that’s almost sour, in a really good way.
Two little medallions of juicy pork that somehow only get better when you eat them with the accompanying spicy chile sauce. There’s also some cabbage slaw to cool everything down, and long, skinny potatoes. But to be honest, we almost forgot about the potatoes while we were distracted by the pork.
After one meal here we asked, “Should we do pasta for dessert or dessert for dessert?” And we could really have gone either way. If you do want to get dessert for dessert, the mini ricotta donuts and the chocolate budino are equally great choices.