Note: Henry at Life Hotel is one of 10 finalists for our inaugural Best New Restaurant Award! We’ll announce the winner in mid-January. Until then, you can check out who else we nominated and learn more about our esteemed panel of judges. Thanks for reading and happy eating!
If JJ Johnson is not already on your radar, put him there this minute. I’ll wait. Good? Great! In the past several months, the James Beard nominee and Minton’s alum published his first cookbook and previewed his new grain concept, FieldTrip (opening in Harlem later this fall), at the U.S. Open. In the midst of his whirlwind 2018, Johnson has somehow found time to also transform the Henry inside midtown’s Life Hotel into his first stand-alone spot.
The restaurant is a tribute to his Afro–Puerto Rican roots and travels. You and your appetite certainly don’t need a passport—or to wait any longer!—to make the trip there.
The menu takes you on a trip around the African diaspora.
Consider Henry an all-encompassing introduction to the vast range of Johnson’s influences. The kitchen touches on tastes from the continent along with the Caribbean, Latin America, and the South, creating a globe-trotting trip on your table. Con’con, the caramelized scorched rice that doubles as a savory candy in Dominican households, gets a mainstream plating alongside an earthy eggplant curry; the humble collard green is tossed with three other c’s—cucumbers, cashews, and a coconut dressing—to make a chic salad; and a rustic roti starter comes with a trio of modern dips and a sunny-side up egg that’s delightful enough to jump-start a new industry: yolk porn. Most remarkable, though, is a whole fried fish encrusted in cornmeal. The aquatic animal is turned on its side to create a cavernous hideaway for the dish’s accompaniments, a hearty serving of pickled papaya escovitch and long beans over a purple yam puree.
Drinks and dishes pair harmoniously.
Slinging behind the bar is Pamela Wiznitzer, formerly of the critically acclaimed Seamstress. After shutting down the Upper East Side hot spot earlier this summer, the beverage director partnered with Johnson to concoct a cocktail program that goes hand in hand with his versatile vision. It spotlights lesser-known ingredients like shiso (taco’ing up tuna tartare and giving a minty hint to the green tea, shochu-splashed South by Eastside) and sorrel (tossed with delicate shaved kohlrabi and stirred into the peanut, scotch-driven Whirlwind) in both drink and plate form. Other libations—like the chai-forward Mortimer & Mauve and a bourbon-based Wait Wai, strong on the plantain—more subtly play off complementary flavor profiles respectively found in the buttery bone-in short rib and tamarind-coated barbecued jerk chicken.
Childhood desserts graduate to adulthood.
Completing the trifecta of masterminds behind Henry’s menu is pastry maestro Zac Young. The sweets chef specializes in platefuls that change your perception of the standards—for example, he’s to thank for the infamous Franken-dessert, the piecaken. It’s no surprise he’s flipping Henry’s postdinner fare on its head. Consider after-school staple the Rice Krispies Treat; he brings the bar into postgrad by mixing the puffed rice cereal with foie gras–infused marshmallow and serving it alongside a raspberry jam spiked with cognac. Other sugary stunners include ice cream pops covered with a matcha magic shell and a most hedonistic chocolate cake topped with flan.
The soundtrack is, yes, lit.
If you listened to hours of urban radio in the ’90s and early aughts, you’ll be feeling all kinds of nostalgic here. The more you’re engulfed in Henry’s curated speakers, the more you’ll feel like you’re eating inside JJ Johnson’s personal dining room. R&B bops from Tony! Toni! Toné! and Musiq Soulchild, followed up by Swizz Beatz–produced tracks from DMX, UGK, and N.O.R.E., making for a highly entertaining soundtrack. Soon enough you may even find yourself rapping along to Cam’ron verses. Not that I’d know anything about that.