In Harlem, Rum Gets the Spotlight at Solomon & Kuff

From the decor to the drinks, the new bar and restaurant is an ode to the Caribbean.

Harlemites may not know it yet, but this summer, they’re all going to be hanging out down by the river. Frederick Douglass Boulevard has long been considered restaurant row above the park, but recently opened rum bar and gastropub Solomon & Kuff at 134th and 12th Avenue will have diners heading to the West Harlem viaduct’s shadows.

The Harlem restaurant scene has high standards, which doesn’t always mean high prices or flashy names. Karl Franz Williams, the restaurateur and mixologist behind Solomon & Kuff has been opening restaurants and cafés in Harlem for more than 10 years. With Caribbean roots from St. Vincent, combined with a love of rum and spice on display at his cocktail bar 67 Orange, Williams wants Solomon & Kuff to convey a strong sense of authenticity.  

“This is the culmination of a lot of what I’ve been working on for 10 years,” says Williams.

He makes it seem like Solomon & Kuff was the address, the concept and the time he has been waiting for, and since a fortunate turn of events made the 5,000-square-foot space available to him without much notice, he had no choice but to set up quickly.

About the rum

Named after a notoriously industrious slave who was sold for four gallons of rum and lived to buy his own freedom, Williams built the culture of Solomon & Kuff around two of his loves: reggae music and good rum.

The timing seems good: The West Indies Rum and Spirits Producers’ Association predicts premium rum sales to grow by 50 percent by 2017, with many expecting rum to take the same path as bourbon over the last 10 years.

“It’s a great spirit and it’s actually on par with your Cognac and your high-end whiskeys but not respected in that way yet,” says Williams.

Williams’s passion really comes out behind the bar. He makes his own sorrel (a liqueur made from fermented hibiscus) and has his own ginger beer recipe that includes turmeric and Scotch bonnet peppers. Though it’s not on the menu, his bartenders know that adding a little sorrel to a Dark and Stormy is not a bad idea and they’ll do it when asked. Williams says the ginger beer is the most personal thing to him in the house.

“As I got into the mixology world and seeing new bars, whenever someone opened a rum bar, most of them had more of a tiki approach. Of course I know Beachcomber and Trader Vic and all of these stories, but that wasn’t my culture, that’s not how I knew rum.”

The bar offers rum tastings occasionally, and Williams quite obviously wants to be appeal to the rum connoisseur while indoctrinating the rest.

The space itself is an ode to the Caribbean itself. With high vaulted ceilings, the main space is all wood and iron with palm fronds and other greenery around. Wooden casks are lined up above the bar and the high ceiling has thick wooden beams that make it feel like you’re inside the hull of ship. There is a private space as well that is a little moodier with tufted leather couches.

The menu is a mix of Caribbean ingredients and flavors with some more conventional New York items. The papaya salad has kale and radishes combined with sweet potato crisps and sugarcane vinaigrette. There is jerk eggplant on the menu and a unique take on a conch salad, which is sliced thin and cooked until crispy.

Williams says the menu should feel like home to anyone from any Caribbean Island. He purposely wanted to open the door to all Caribbean cuisines instead of making the food strictly Jamaican or Trinidadian, for example.

Solomon & Kuff opened in December and started serving food in January. Williams said there were lots of doubts sitting in a empty restaurant with cold, wet weather outside, but it allowed his staff to get ready for the rush they trusted was coming. The weekend I visited, there was no walk-in business and Saturday night was sold out.

Harlem pioneer

Williams was one of the first ones to bank on Harlem’s resurgence, opening a coffee shop on Frederick Douglass Boulevard in 2005. Society Coffee didn’t last, but is highly regarded in the neighborhood as just slightly ahead of its time.

“Being on Frederick Douglass first taught me a lot about when is the right time to get to a neighborhood. And I was too early with Society Coffee. I was way too early. I feel like I’m right on time here. Society was by itself for years,” says Williams. “But I love what’s happened to Frederick Douglass. I think it’s a beautiful stretch of all of these great concepts. There are still more spaces that can fill in.

Opening Up to the West Side

Solomon & Kuff won’t be the new kids on the block for long. Columbia University is slowly making its way toward the area with an expansion plan and Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, Ginny’s Supper Club and Fairway Market are longstanding fixtures. A $6 million city lighting project is also set to make the viaduct into an art piece with lights that respond to train traffic.

Bierstrasse, a highly anticipated outdoor biergarten set to open across the street from Solomon & Kuff, comes from the team behind The Grange, a bustling Hamilton Heights restaurant that nobody saw coming and is now a neighborhood fixture.

Williams speaks of Bierstrasse’s Roy Henley like a brother. Ironically, it’s the proximity to the river that makes the prospect a little less certain, but Williams isn’t worried. “This is a culmination of everything I learned in the last 10 years in the restaurant business. … We’re about to rock this out.”

Photos courtesy of Solomon & Kuff.

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Emma Cosgrove is a writer and food industry nerd living in Harlem. She is an adventurous home cook with a reductionist view of modern food. She cooks tongue more than steak, liver more than tongue. She never met a root vegetable she didn’t like.