Nestled on the corner of 138th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard in Harlem's iconic Strivers' Row rests Reverence. Though the name alludes to one of the over 400 churches in the borough, the 18-seat restaurant is a different house of worship where California-inspired degustation is the offering from the hands and heart of chef Russell Jackson.
"I live in Harlem and I didn't have a place to eat," Jackson explains when asked about the restaurant's location. "What I wanted was non-existent and what was okay was in short supply. There was a necessity to do something that set the bar differently without disrupting the ecosystem." In a neighborhood where fine-dining concepts could be viewed as a disturbance to the environment or a signifier for gentrification, Jackson uses Reverence to expand the culinary narrative, fill a void and provide an amenity that he feels people deserve here—not 40 blocks down.
Behind Reverence's horseshoe-shaped wood counter lies an open kitchen where guests can interact with Jackson and his nimble but mighty crew of four. Passersby stop frequently, peeking through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the 150-year-old building. Its exposed brick alongside Cobalt blue tiles inspired by the Mediterranean invites a bright and comfortable aesthetic that keeps both form and function in mind. Each night, the first round of guests for the 6:30 p.m. seating are settled into their seats, the doors have been locked, and the amuse course—on one occasion a fermented carrot and house-made miso Gruyère appropriately dubbed "communion"—cues the beginning of service.
The intimacy between guests and the restaurant team is further cemented with Reverence's no technology policy. In a time where Instagrammability is often attributed to a concept's success, Jackson sees it as a distraction for guests and he's stringent about staying within the 45-minutes-per-seating time frame. "In former projects, tech has helped us. I'm not 100% against it, but it's white noise for us. I don't need to be that. My job needs to be focused here, not for mass behind a screen." Here, back of house and front of house are interchangable; there's no booker or hostess, so Jackson and his team refuse to miss a beat. "From a business perspective, tech slows down our pace and in a community setting, it's just not proper etiquette to have your phone dominate the experience," Jackson imparts. "The importance of being present in the moment we provide has a definitive impact on the memories you'll create here."
Jackson is obsessively proud to be from California. Each dish within the thoughtful five-course tasting menu mimics a chapter of a memoir, telling a story about his life on the West Coast narrated by the chef himself. Sous vide cuttlefish slowly cooked in olive oil, Vietnamese coriander and cumin alongside roasted corn and fermented tofu is an homage to Rosarito Beach where Mexico meets California at its border, and where Jackson frequently visited. An Alaskan salmon is bathed in Nasturtium butter and served with chanterelle mushrooms acts as a nod to Big Bear Lake, a small city near the San Bernardino Mountains, where Jackson fished with his father as a child. Accompanying the meal is an optional beverage pairing featuring selections like Txakolina and Junmai Daiginjo sake, as well as non-alcoholic options curated by veteran beverage director Ann Marie Del Bellow. "At $98 per person, we've made the experience accessible, affording guests a great value for the price, and leaving room for the one or two surprise dishes that make their way across the table," Jackson notes.
There's an emphasis on sustainability taken from the ethos of California cuisine. The fish served at dinner service is caught in the morning and hand-delivered fresh that afternoon, sans packaging, and directly from the fishmonger. With over 36 years in the business, Jackson has witnessed the great impact that restaurants have on the environment, challenging him to rethink the way ingredients are delivered to Reverence. He is adamant about stopping deliveries at the door. All hands-on deck, Jackson and his team retrieve ingredients or materials on sheet trays or bus tubs, taking only the product to eliminate garbage and waste. A single partner delivers items to Reverence in bulk once a week by hand, procuring several items—including kombucha and seasonal, hydroponically-grown produce and herbs—from Stokes Farms.
You may have never been to any of the places Jackson describes as he ushers each dish to your spot at the counter, but when you savor his rendition of a sopa verde or roasted chicken à la Zuni Café, you'll certainly feel a bit closer to The Golden State's rich culinary history in the heart of Harlem.
Photo of Russell Jackson courtesy of Reverence.