“Book my birthday dinner here,” I told my fiancé and 5-year-old daughter while we were dining at Clay on Manhattan Avenue in Harlem. It’s not every day that we can walk into a sophisticated restaurant that doubles as romantic and family friendly.
Sure, there are places in the city that won’t turn away kids, but they won’t necessarily make you feel very welcome either. At Clay, we didn’t get glares from the restaurant patrons or staff for not hiring a babysitter that evening. (Child care is expensive and, sometimes, you just wanna hang with your partner and kid, eat at a nice place and feel like you’re not committing social faux pas.) My belief is that, if the space and staff is inviting to everyone, your kid won’t feed off any nervous energy coming from you or your partner. Clay understood that.
My daughter ordered a bowl of olives and an off-the-menu cheesy pasta. With a kind smile, the server asked, “Do you like parmesan cheese with your cheesy pasta?” My daughter’s eyes widened as she grinned and said, “Yes, please!” I selected the Wagyu strip steak served with soubise, yuzu, hen of the woods mushroom and chimicurri while the lightly fried gnocchi with butternut squash, pickled fresno, maitake, hazelnut and sage caught my partner’s eye instantly.
From there, we had lively conversations about everything from olive pits to favorite episodes of The Magic School Bus. There was no special occasion for our outing. We were simply celebrating family time. The palpable culture of community and inclusivity that Clay exudes has always been a priority for bar director Andrea Needell Mattelliano, executive chef Gustavo Lopez and wine director Gabriela Davogustto.
“Service is our number-one priority, but so is creating a safe space for every single guest and employee,” says Mattelliano, who is a longtime Harlem resident.
When the trio opened Clay in early 2017, their culinary mission was simple: support farmer communities and serve hyper-seasonal dishes and beverages. Davogustto carefully crafted a natural wine collection that features labels from the Canary Islands, Spain, France, Italy, Germany and South Africa, to name a few; Mattelliano brings in spirits made by passionate producers from Brooklyn and Maine, and all the way from Haiti and Puerto Rico. For craft-beer lovers, Mattelliano stocks gems like Brooklyn’s Grimm Artisanal Ales and Plan Bee Farm Brewery’s Barn Beer.
Back when Clay was Harlem’s legendary Perk’s jazz bar, Mattelliano was a server there. Her relationship to the space has come full circle. As a nod to Perk’s, she offers visually stunning cocktails named after jazz tunes—the Traveling Light, made with vodka, lemon, egg white, mint, orange flower and the same raw honey that dresses the ricotta amuse bouche; Good Morning Heartache combines gin, beet, pink peppercorn, génépy, lime and hibiscus rose bitters.
“When you don’t sell the large labels that vodka or bourbon drinkers are used to seeing, it creates opportunities for intimate interactions with the guests,” Mattelliano explains. “If the guest is willing to take a few moments to have those conversations with us, we can make magic and end up with a really bespoke, customized experience.”
Some chefs might shy away from the small kitchen and tiny 5-by-5.5-foot walk-in refrigerator that the space offered. Lopez, on the other hand, saw the challenge as an opportunity to order from New York and Pennsylvania family farms and creameries very frequently. Their space isn’t big enough to hold the minimum order requirements of bigger food distributors and companies, which means nothing is mass-produced.
On the dinner menu, you’ll find dishes like the chicken liver with preserved fig and toast, and roasted red and golden beets salad with hon shimeji mushrooms, candied pistachios and red oak-leaf dusted with powdered beet. There’s a trio of housemade pasta offerings, including the pillow-like gnocchi my partner ordered; I snuck three bites of it, and whoa, it was heavenly how each bite of gnocchi complemented with the mild sweetness from the butternut squash and crunchiness of the hazelnuts.
The garganelli dish is tossed with crumbled housemade pork sausage and kale, and the bucatini comes with lobster, bottarga, Calabrian chile and breadcrumbs. The hearty confit duck leg with celeriac, smoked faro, collard greens and tart blueberry gastrique and pork tenderloin with apple mostarda, potato and charred romaine are popular among regulars and newcomers alike.
“With Clay, we wanted to apply modern techniques in an unpretentious way,” says Lopez, who developed a love for cooking as a young boy helping his mom in the kitchen. “We sit down family-style and taste everything we put on the menu together.”
Inside the candle-lit and historic space, diners are savoring their farm-to-table meals and enjoying a soundtrack created by local artist and DJ Javier Peral. Along the marble-topped bar are friends and couples clinking glasses, sharing stories and reveling in each other’s presence. Mattelliano and Davogustto are striking up conversations with their patrons, making sure every dish, wine and cocktail pairing lives up to the highest standards.
From the bartenders and servers to the bussers and hostesses, the entire Clay staff ensures everyone’s dining experience is special. That collective warm attitude probably stems from how the owners practice hospitality. Even before the #MeToo movement and the hospitality industry came under fire for sexual assault and discrimination, Clay understood the importance of providing a safe environment for guests and staff alike.
“If you’re not treating your employees with the same level of respect you’re asking them to provide for guests, you’re not really walking the walk and living out hospitality,” Mattelliano says. “We’ve also made demands that the guests are respectful to our staff. Guests are welcome to be very choosy and difficult, but they are not welcome to be abusive to our staff or other patrons. The culture of harassment doesn’t have a place here, and I know that’s how [Lopez] runs his kitchen as well.”
For a nightcap, my family selected the divine chocolate budino, mini doughnuts with lemon verbena and espresso (not for my kid, of course). When Davogustto came by to serve our coffee, my daughter asked, “Why is the top part of the coffee lighter than the rest?” Davogustto responded by saying she was impressed by the question and had to get back to her with an answer after doing some research. As a former barista, I had no idea why espresso crema looks the way it does, either. But regardless, I was delighted that Davogustto encouraged my daughter’s curiosity wholeheartedly and asked her to come back soon when our evening wrapped up.
“The community here is magical and we want to be super mindful of contributing to it,” Mattelliano says. “All of this altogether leads us to a place where we are really looking at a more holistic way of feeding people.”