When chef JJ Johnson isn’t popping up at the U.S. Open, Sundance Film Festival, or the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, he’s home in Harlem, spending time with his young family and running his new fast-casual concept, Fieldtrip.
Johnson broke out onto the national food scene in 2014 as the chef of Afro-Asian The Cecil. He was among the first of his culinary generation to explore what it means to make black food in America—work he continued at Henry at Life Hotel and in the James Beard Award-winning cookbook Between Harlem and Heaven, co-written with Alexander Smalls.
Johnson’s Fieldtrip specializes in delicious bowls made by a rice obsessive chef, who has worked to track down ancient West African rice cultivars and traveled to basmati fields in India. Fieldtrip’s menu features five varieties of the grain—red, Texas brown, Carolina gold, sticky and basmati—paired with proteins like braised beef, seafood gumbo and crispy chicken. Johnson weaves everything together with a global pantry. (His favorite bowl right now is shrimp, sticky rice, coconut and green curry.)
“You get perspective on foods from around the world,” says Johnson. “You’re really on a field trip.”
These days, Johnson spends much of his time above 59th Street—close to home and his business—and he recently gave Robb Report a list of his recommendations for diners lucky enough to venture north of Midtown Manhattan.
Community Food & Juice
“Community Food & Juice in Morningside Heights is one of the few places that opens early in my neighborhood, and they serve good, thoughtful food. Michelle Obama and Malia stopped in for lunch when they were touring Columbia University. I go for breakfast. They have famous blueberry pancakes that everyone loves, and that’s what I order if I’m with my kids. If I’m solo, I usually get the country breakfast with a wheat biscuit, maple syrup-cured ham and carrot hash browns with hot sauce on the side. With the carrots, you get the satisfaction of a super tasty hash brown without getting starched up. And if you really want to get your morning started properly, you can start drinking mimosas at 10 am.”
Asíate at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel
“If I have a breakfast meeting, I take the train to Columbus Circle and eat at Asíate at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. It’s quiet and polished. People aren’t on top of you. In addition to your standard continental breakfast dishes, they serve Chinese and Japanese breakfast sets. I typically go for the Chinese version. The congee is really good and it comes with a soft-boiled egg, pickled mustard greens and youtiao (Chinese-style crullers). The Japanese set has a tamagoyaki omelet, miso soup, smoked fish, tofu and rice.”
Sushi of Gari
“If I’m in a good mood and want to treat myself, I go to Sushi of Gari on the Upper West Side for lunch. They take real pride in their craft and have amazingly fresh fish. I get a sushi or sashimi lunch special and spend a couple of coins. Last year was a rough year. I would go to Gari—I probably went six times—to feel good about myself. It was my self-care. Gari is just one of those special uptown places. It’s right by the Natural History Museum and Central Park. You can go for a date night or bring people who love sushi. It really is some of the best sushi in New York.”
“People always want soul food when they visit Harlem, and when my dad is in town, we always go to BLVD Bistro. My grandfather was from Mississippi, and the chef, Carlos Swepson, makes Mississippi-style Southern food. My dad says he can taste Mississippi in the dishes. It’s in the way Carlos makes grits with stock and how he fries chicken. The recipes are near and dear to his heart. You have to order the biscuits, fried chicken, and red beans and rice. They also have lots of flavored sangrias. In the summer, they open their windows onto the street overlooking 116th and Frederick Douglass Boulevard.”
“There are only a few places in the city that feel like real New York to me: Gramercy Tavern, Four Charles, and Oso in West Harlem. Oso looks out onto City College, the dining room is busy and there’s an open kitchen. It’s where I go for Mexican food that’s both affordable and Michelin recommended. They have Bib Gourmand status. They make tortillas in house and have specials all the time. I order margaritas and tacos. I love the al pastor and I’m a sucker for their barbacoa and braised beef tongue tacos.”
“Aviary, Grant Achatz’s first spot in New York, is a place to show off. You have views of the city and Central Park from the dining room. It’s on the 35th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, and you get off the elevator, check in, and sit down in this plush, luxurious setting with warm hospitality. Just be sure to make a reservation with Tock, or you ain’t gonna get a seat. The cocktails are super fancy and delicious. I loved a smoked bourbon drink that last time I visited, but they switch up the menu all the time. You can go for a full dining experience or just have a few small bites. Everybody gets the chicharron—it’s as tall as the Empire State Building.”
Lion’s Head Tavern
“For late night, I want to bring you back uptown to Lion’s Tavern on 109th and Amsterdam. It’s a true New York City dive bar. Everybody knows the bartenders. And the room represents a genuine cross section of New Yorkers. They sell beer for $3 and mixed drinks for $7. They have Pat LaFrieda burgers. You pick your toppings and tater tots or fries. Lion’s Head gives you everything you need late night. It’s a friendly, vibrant, cool place to hang out and have a good time.”