photo credit: Teddy Wolff
Clay is an upscale spot in Harlem where you can have a special-but-not-too-formal meal. The menu here is full of New American staples like pork belly with apple, radicchio with walnut and pears, and strip steak with potatoes—but just because you’ve seen these combinations before doesn’t mean you should skip them.
We particularly enjoy Clay’s pastas like the perfectly al dente garganelli (usually mixed with some sort of meat or mushroom), the crisped and toasted gnocchi, and the chewy bucatini with short rib and parmesan. Prepare to feel the same sort of unconditional commitment to these dishes that Dance Moms feel toward their 6-year-old tap stars—but don’t neglect the other entrees. The rotating fish, whatever variety it may be, is always a memorable main course. One night we had crispy black bass in a sour black garlic sauce that was illogically good. We’re still trying to figure out what was in it.
Clay operates on two floors, and we like the downstairs one slightly more. That space has low ceilings, a big patterned banquette, and a mural with pastel blue abstract shapes (kind of like a mood board for Picasso’s Blue Period). Overall, it’s a bit more intimate than the upstairs. That said, if you’re just having a weeknight dinner or a solo meal at the bar, the first floor will still have music playing just loud enough that you can hear your dining companion and lighting just dim enough to necessitate the occasional phone flashlight. Wherever you’re sitting, you’ll notice the staff greeting regulars, asking about things like which schools their children finally decided on.
Clay may not have a seven-course tasting menu representing every continent on Earth or a flight of truffle-infused foams for you to spend too much money on, but we can confidently say that a meal here will improve your night (and your dining life in general). So use this place as often as possible for special occasions, dates, or especially exciting Wednesdays.
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Clay’s pork belly is meatier than it is fatty, with a thin piece of lardo on top and some not-too-sweet apple sauce on the side. If you’re sharing, make sure everyone gets a chance to try the corners. (They’re the crispiest parts.)
The preparation of this dish changes based on the season. The last time we were here, it came with two kinds of warm, earthy beets with mushrooms, arugula, and pistachios sitting on top like a little forest crown.
This dish is shaped like a 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 suitcaseful.
Short Rib Bucatini
The concept of winter on a plate is 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 that tomorrow’s a snow day: exciting and comforting at the same time.
A plate of buttery, perfectly-chewy noodles. This is a must-order.
If you’ve ever tried to make gnocchi, you’ll appreciate how fluffy and pillowy-soft these are.The best part? The gnocchi are toasted, so you get some crunch when you eat them.
This is some very well-executed steak with salsa verde—but the broccolini on the plate is the secret star.
Confit Duck Leg
You’ll be tempted to pick this up with your hands like you would a turkey leg at Medieval Times. This has crispy skin, tender meat, and a caramelized concord grape sauce that will provide inspiration for your next jelly sandwich.
Even if you’re not typically a fish-as-an-entree person, you should still seriously consider getting the market fish as your main course. In the past, we’ve had flaky black bass which was pretty mild—until we dipped it in the accompanying mashed parsnips and sour black garlic sauce.
Near the end of every meal at Clay, we ask ourselves, “Should we do pasta for dessert or dessert for dessert?” And you could really go either way. If you do want to get dessert for dessert, the mini ricotta donuts and the chocolate budino are equally great choices.