The streets are littered with bodegas, similar in appearance, each one boasting the “best sandwich in the area” or some similarly hyperbolic marketing ploy. Intermingled in between are apartment buildings, walk-ups not more than four or five stories tall, the nicest ones offering the brownstone façade which is so fashionable in more recognizable areas of New York City.
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I’m in Harlem, deep in the recesses of the historic neighborhood. Unlike the skyscrapers that dot the New York skyline, Harlem is more grounded, the best neighborhood haunts stretching horizontally throughout the expansive neighborhood.
I could’ve selected jazz at the famous Apollo theater, or beer and live music at Shrine, a neighborhood institution. But tonight, I’m in the market for oysters, a culinary experience that when executed correctly is one worth, well, experiencing.
Ramen Oysters Kitchen Cocktails
I nearly walk past my destination, the black, unmarked awning withdrawn from the street. I drop down the metal steps, ducking my head into the quaint, solitary room. My eyes are drawn to the L-shaped rustic bar, the room’s focal point, light emanating from behind the bartender and projecting throughout the space.
Making my way through the tightly knit tables, I slide myself into a bar seat, taking time to admire the bartender’s finishing touches on a hand-crafted cocktail.
Near me, a man orders a mescal drink and is quizzed on his preference for spiciness, a scale that ranges from one to 10. As the waiter explains, the mescal is made on-site, the offering running the spice gamut all the way from tame to adventurous.
After some time, the proper preparations being made, the drink is delivered, its contents served in a frozen green bell pepper, a metal straw protruding from the hollowed-out vegetable.
While my oyster selections, hailing from British Columbia, are meticulously prepared, I take some time to consider my surroundings. The attention to detail is remarkable, each employee executing their craft to perfection.
Taking careful note of the bar, I recognize scratches in the wood, the type of wear and tear weathered over years of use. The bartender’s industrial beige apron is stained with a splash of whiskey here or a touch of bitters there.
My eyes scan the walls. Intermittent chips in the off-white paint reveal a gray cement underneath. I cannot help but note the juxtaposition of the room against the carefully curated presentation. The food and drink are timeless, allowing the space to age with grace.
ROKC in Harlem
ROKC, or Ramen Oysters Kitchen Cocktails, sits at 141st street on the west side of Harlem. The nearest most New Yorkers come to this Japanese oyster and cocktail bar is racing by on the West Side Highway, headed off to weekend jaunts upstate.
New Yorkers and visitors to the famed city alike can’t help but be aware of Harlem. After all, the multi-faceted neighborhood boasts Columbia University, the aforementioned Apollo and Shrine, Sylvia’s (a common presidential campaign stop), an African street market and the history of past generations of civil rights leaders like Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass.
A visit to Harlem, however, is typically not the first destination on any New York City itinerary. When I mention ROKC to even the most seasoned New Yorkers, the usual response is, “Where did you say it was again?”
My oysters arrive, and I swivel in my seat in anticipation of the main event. As the salinity of the first oysters overwhelm me, my surroundings begin to dissolve. The bourbon from my cocktail offers a sharp retort, warming my extremities. I can’t help but develop an immediate attachment to this tiny establishment.
Taking a moment to notice the patrons, I see there’s an undeniable understanding that we are all participants in an incredible secret that no one else cares to discover. The couple next to me orders another round, because what reason do they have to leave? The ice clanks as I finish the last of my cocktail, and I make sure to savor the slight burning sensation of the alcohol against my lips.
Suddenly, behind me, the door opens. It sticks, remaining ajar for several seconds until a waiter rushes to close it. He’s too late. The gusty winter air has forced its way in, the whine of a distant siren disturbing the serenity.
A woman at a nearby table looks up, startled, pulling her loosely draped sweater closer, a necessary barrier against the chilly night air. I snap back to reality, thoughts from the outside world back on my consciousness.
The bartender slides the check in front of me. I nod at him, a subtle acknowledgement of the reality that has crept in from the outside. On my way out, I push the door tightly shut behind me, lest I be guilty of disturbing ROKC’s equilibrium.
I’m back out on the street. The bodegas are lit up, the best deals prominently displayed. Cars speed by, the people on the sidewalk pushing past, everyone in a rush to get to where’s next. It is disconcerting, but after all this is New York, ‘the city that never sleeps.’
As I navigate towards the downtown subway that will whisk me out of Harlem and back to the masses, I can’t help but wish to go back and once again disappear into the flickering light of that remote enclave. But tonight, I’ll leave my seat open for someone else to discover.
The next time I come back, I’ll save you a seat.