Hav & Mar Serves Up African Mermaid Mythology—With a Side of Lobster

An all-star team unveils a seafood restaurant in New York City’s Starrett-Lehigh building that’s more than just another dining destination—it’s a deep dive into Black art and culinary traditions.

Credit (all images): Clay Williams

At Hav & Mar, Black creativity is on the menu. Opening his first New York City restaurant in seven years, chef Marcus Samuelsson picked a 5,000-square-foot expanse in one of Chelsea’s most famous buildings, the 1931 polygonal landmark known as Starrett-Lehigh. “Our hope,” Samuelsson said in a statement announcing the opening, “is that Hav & Mar is a reflection of Black joy and excellence.”

Designed by Montreal firm Atelier Zébulon Perron, Hav & Mar is named after the Swedish word for “ocean” and the Amharic word for “honey.” Samuelsson assembled a distinguished culinary team to join him: executive chef Rose Noël, who comes from DC’s Maialino Mare; head baker Farheen Jafarey, fresh from Samuelsson’s famed Red Rooster in Harlem; and the Wythe Hotel’s Rafa Garcia Febles to oversee a beverage program highlighting female producers of color.

The team’s multicultural background ranges from Ethiopian and Haitian to Pakistani and Swedish, a diversity that shows up on the seafood-focused menu, from dawa dawa seared bass and corn-wrapped snapper to berbere-cured salmon with mustard seed caviar. The Nordic spirit Aquavit is infused in-house with ingredients such as yuzu, smoked pineapple, chili pepper, and others.

More than a celebration of culinary traditions, Hav & Mar is a platform for Black art. For that, Samuelsson turned to Studio Museum in Harlem director Thelma Golden. But perhaps nobody has been involved more deeply in the project than artist Derrick Adams, who devised a series of large-scale works. “We started from a historical space, sending images back and forth of documentation of Black people in factories shelling crabs for cans of crab meat, and talking about oyster culture in New York,” he says.

That led to deeper research into African and Haitian mermaid mythologies that predated Atlantic slave trade narratives. “They were more connected to just the mystery, the freedom of fantasy, and their freedom of looking at Blackness in a particular way that is not defined by anything other than itself,” Adams says.

Playing on that theme, Adams’s We Are from the Water, too is defined by seven-foot mermaid sculptures whose presence turns the restaurant into a metaphorical body of water. Adams explored his own fabric collection for bolts from which he crafted their scales. “I started to think about the mermaid almost as a beacon,” he says, “something that was so mystical and opulent that it can also be used as a light to draw people in, to set a tone and a mood for the restaurant that’s not just about service, it’s about inspiration.”

“As a Black artist, sometimes we’re drawn to create commentary and response to something else but naturally, that’s not my instinctual nature of making art,” Adams says. “People should have the freedom of looking at an image of a mermaid who happens to be Black without comparing it to a mermaid that is white. I hope I can contribute an alternative way of looking at Blackness in a way that’s fortifying and empowering and not comparative.”

Adams is having quite a moment: “I Can Show You Better Than I Can Tell You,” a show of cinematic, large-scale paintings, is running at the Flag Foundation through March 11. The expansive multi-media installation, This City is My Refuge, is on display as part of the Art at Amtrak series in the upper-level main rotunda of Manhattan’s Penn Station, departing at the end of the summer.

Both are worth checking out, though they won’t offer the chance to contemplate his work while sipping on a rum-based Banana Leaf cocktail with cooked banana cordial, rancio sec wine, nutmeg, and palo santo. Thankfully, there’s Hav & Mar, ready to, as Adams puts it, “welcome in visual thinkers and creative minds, and serve as a meeting ground for engagement and communion, like a gallery.” But with corn husk chocolate pudding.

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