Open Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 6 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
AE, BA, Reservations.
Food: Brunch is best
Style: Glitter of decorative glass, gleam of burnished wood, in a three-level fantasy
price: Brunch or lunch about $15 a couple, dinner at least twice that.
SOME RESTAURANTS ARE made for Sunday brunch. Henry Africa is one of them. Then again, some restaurants are made for romantic dinners. Henry Africa is one of them, too. Henry Africa, as you must have guessed by now, is a simple (well, not really simply) beautiful restaurant. In daylight the sun filters from the skylight through the forest of hanging plants to dapple the decorative tiled floor and glance off the leaded glass and etched Art Nouvean mirrors. At night the stained-glass peacock throws back light from the marble bar, which is lit underneath, and the Moorish-looking metallic wallpaper shimmers. Everywhere there is a visual gift - intricately carved wood polished to a red-gold gleam, ceilings and walls painted with murals and geometric fantasies. On each table, a restrained single rosebud.
Small as it is, with perhaps two dozen tables, Henry Africa looks a different restaurant not only by day or night, but also depending on where you sit. The front room is mostly bar, and breaking through the crowd on a good night may evoke the battles of the Foreign Legion which inspired Henry Africa's name. The two dining rooms beyond are on different levels, the lower one tiled and airy, the upper one more cozy and dim. Foreign Legion? Not really. It's about as hard-bitten as Charlie's Angels.
The food, too, provides good entertainment if not great art. If it weren't a suspicious phrase, one might call this a continental menu. From pate to Greek marinated octopus, gazpacho to chicken jambalaya, the menu leaps continents in a single bound. The choices, particularly appetizers, look interesting. Artichoke sardou and eggs Florentine, both variations on a poached-egg-on-a-vegetable-with-a-sauce theme could serve as a small dinner (and thus are priced between $2 and $3; appetizers climb to nearly $4). The Florentine version, surprisingly profligate with garlic and pepper, was a beautiful preparation. Cheese beignets, large squares of Gruyere lightly breaded and sauteed in butter until golden and oozing, were an equally grand - if filling - beginning. And Greek octopus was as fresh and tangy as one might hope from a restaurant parented, as this one is, by the fine Taverna Cretekov. As for soups - the standard four choices of onion, vichyssoise, lobster bisque and gazpacho - the lobster bisque was unorthodox, being tomato-based, but not unpleasant.
Five fish dishes - Dover sole, shrimp and pompano - four steak variations, three veals, three chickens and two lambs compose the main dishes. In our experience, none of them matched the appetizers. True, the sole was faultlessly glazzed, bathed in a smooth, lightly winey cream sauce which was a credit to the kitchen. But some of the filets on the plate tasted tired, strongly fishy. Entrecote Cafe de Paris, besides looking and tasting gray, bore a spiced butter which had turned bitter, as if it had been made too far in advance. Veal continental - veal steak stuffed with goose liver, mushrooms and truffles - sounded tantalizing, but the stuffing overshadowed the veal, which was paper-thin and flabby, and uncooked shallots swamped the brown sauce. Finally, lamb shashlyk, which you would expect to be superb, given the Greek parentage of the restaurant, was nothing short of a disaster. Dry, overcooked meat, overwhelmed by rosemary, sat on a bed of greasy wild rice with crusty bits where it had been reheated just short of singeing. Side dishes of crisp sauteed potatoes and cauliflower in an energetic cheese sauce couldn't save the day, given the fact that main dishes run $5.50 to $9.80, most over $7.
Desserts fared no better, the star supposedly being strawberries Henri d'Afrique, a dish of warm, sour berries in a bland custard with a fluff of whipped cream. Coup Danemark was a parfait with very good bittersweet chocolate sauce, but nothing else to recommend it.
The wine list has a substantial number of choices from $6 to $8, but with no vintages revealed on the list, we took the waiter's advice. We wouldn't ask again.
Brunch and lunch are better ideas at Henry Africa. The well-meaning but inexperienced service goes better with bloody marys and omelets than with wine and entrecote. The kitchen poaches eggs to a runny perfection and folds omelets with a gentle touch. Don't press your luck with elaborate fillings, though, because the staff does not go so far as to properly toast the English muffin for eggs benedict or to saute the vegetables enough to develop their flavor for an omelet boone femme. Yet, an individual quiche lorraine is crisp and golden and flowing with cheese, a steak sandwich is deliciously spread with tarragon butter, and the spinach salad is smartly dressed and tossed with fresh, crunchy bacon, not the soggy canned kind too often found under a green leaf these days. Brunch comes with good croissants, omelets are served with oregano-flecked home fries, and the freshly squeezed orange juice really is. If you don't examine it too closely, it is just what brunch should be, from a mimosa of that fresh orange juice with champagne or a bloody mary of great character, to coffee that is fragrant and frequently refilled.
Brunch dishes cost $2.85 to $4, lunch $2.50 to $3.50 for salads and sandwiches, $3 to $5.60 for hot dishes. So brunch or lunch might cost $7, dinner $20 if you run the gamut.
What you can expect at Henry Africa, when you run the gamut, is something delicious, something disappointing, and a strong desire to ignore the flaws and just enjoy the setting.