An uptown legend invites his musician friends to the Senegalese-American restaurant for weekly sets of jazz, blues, and soul.
There are two reasons Phil Young is an uptown legend. First, for his work as a florist: for many years, he ran the Carolina Flower Shop, one of Harlem’s oldest and most beloved stores. Second, for his drumming: in the early sixties, when Phil was in his teens, his band won a competition at the Apollo Theatre. The legendary blues and R. & B. singer Bobby (Blue) Bland happened to be there, and asked Young to tour with him in night clubs around the country. A music career drumming for the likes of George Benson and Dizzy Gillespie followed.
These days, Phil invites a group of his musician friends to play two sets of jazz, blues, and soul on Thursdays at Harlem’s Lenox Saphire, a Senegalese-American restaurant a few blocks from the Apollo. He calls the evening “The Gathering of the Harlem Hip.” Big names like the saxophonist Patience Higgins can be found jamming with talented locals like John Felder, a golden-voiced mechanic who refers to himself as the “auto physician to the jazz community.” Sometimes people just pitch up and start singing. There’s no cover, the cocktails are sweet and strong, and the roiling music is even sweeter and stronger.
There’s good food, too. Potent curries and stews share the menu with soul food and standard American fare like burgers and chicken soup. The African-inflected main courses are generally the best choices: for vegetarians, the Comoros Curry is flush with coconut. More filling, and perhaps more delicious, is a vegetable maffé, a type of West African peanut stew. For carnivores, there’s also a lamb maffé, but first and foremost among the meat dishes are the Thiebu Djen, mildly spicy stewed fish served with a conical heap of rice and cassava, and the Thiebu Yapp (the same, with lamb).
You don’t have to go to Lenox Saphire on a Thursday to have a good time. A glass case full of pastries named after French things and people (the Louvre is an airy chocolate mousse, and the Napoleon is a pastry stuffed with vanilla cream) makes it a good place to stop for an afternoon snack. But Phil’s evenings are special, full of a particular kind of magic that keeps heads bopping late into the night. A few Thursdays ago, one of the restaurant’s staff approached “Wicked” Gary Fritz, a percussionist who plays with the Hip, and asked when things were going to wind down. “Hey, man, it’s only eleven-thirty,” he laughed. “Last week it was well past midnight.” (Entrées $12-$28.)