April 25, 2011 | BITE: My Journal
Red Rooster Crows

Samuelsson seems energized running the kitchen at Red Rooster. Photo: Steven Richter

Samuelsson seems energized running the kitchen at Red Rooster. Photo: Steven Richter

       Everything you may have read about Red Rooster is true. It draws a standing room only crowd that is as diverse as its menu. Smartly dressed locals in fedoras, downtown strivers, foodies and the curious. Mixed race tables in many hues with and without offspring. Dating couples who just want to be wherever the action is, leaning against each other at the big square bar sipping draught beer, tap wines or maybe a Bourbon Negroni.

A whimsical design, folk art roosters and an open kitchen. Photo: Steven Richter

        After many delays, Marcus Samuelsson and partners launched hot and the place hasn’t cooled yet. At lunch there’s often a line waiting outside at 11 a.m.  “A lot of them come in and don’t go back to work,” Samuelsson marvels.

“Fried Yard Bird” is bathed in buttermilk and painted with hot sauce. Photo: Steven Richter

        It’s a heady New York rainbow cocktail you don’t see anywhere downtown.  And it’s given a high to everyone who writes about it. That’s clearly what Marcus had in mind when he talked about giving the neighborhood – his own neighborhood now that he lives here -- something more ambitious, even though the Harlem Renaissance has already been simmering for awhile.  How bold and confident to park on Lenox Avenue just half a block south of Sylvia’s, who first lured downtowners uptown in 1976. That was a time when whites didn’t come to party in Harlem, certainly not to brunch. But I couldn’t resist when friends led me to Sylvia and Herbert Woods’ narrow little luncheonette just wide enough for a counter and seven tables for two. 

A peck of pickled everything for just $4. Photo: Steven Richter

        I’d joined the big swarm of foodies in December, accidentally arriving on Red Rooster’s first night. The chef was so busy smooching and schmoozing I had the sense he might never actually find the kitchen. The fried chicken was okay. Steven was in thrall to a big crock of pickles. I felt the muddle of the kitchen still sorting things out, though I liked the old fashioned baked macaroni and cheese and was wild for roasted apple pie in a cheddar crust.

The house gets points for macaroni that sticks to its cast iron pan. Photo: Steven Richter

        Three months later we’re back, parking across the street. A great expanse of window says “come in.” These could be the same bar-huggers I saw in December. The crowd is looking good, the hip and the not-so. The prices are possibly too cool: appetizers a little pricey for Harlem from $9 to $17, entrées $14 to $32. Samuelsson juggles tables for neighborhood walk-ins by only reserving half the room. 

Seared liver and chicken in a spicy sauce on Ethiopian bread with a fried egg. Photo: Steven Richter

        And no one else could put together a menu like this.  If you’d just landed from Mars with Zagat in hand, you’d find the mix confounding: soul food classics, Ethiopian stew, Helga’s meatballs with Swedish lingonberries, “lox and lax” (as in Gravlaks) with purple mustard. But observant foodies like us would know at once, it could only belong to Marcus.

Dumplings yes; but not chickpea dumplings with spinach, peas and cheese. Photo: Steven Richter

        I’ve never seen him quite so energized. I always had the feeling he was focused on finding his key light and playing the celebrity chef circuit. I never liked his odd creations at Aquavit. I liked his food more at the Asian-inflected Riingo, but I seemed to be in a minority.  I always thought it was his good looks and his story that people fell for – Ethiopian orphan adopted by Swedish family discovering America - with a passionate celebration reflected in his very appealing book, “New American Table” (Wiley $40). 

        Tonight he’s actually in the kitchen in a newsboy cap, red as a cock’s comb, beside his longtime second, Andrea Bergquist, conducting a new squad of chefs he’s recruited from Harlem’s fast food joints: McDonald’s and I-Hop. It’s the Ethiopian-Swedish-Culinary Institute. “They’re not jaded,” Marcus marvels. “Everything is new to them.”

Under the goofy foam, Helga’s very good meatballs. Photo: Steven Richter

        Our waiter – he recognizes me from downtown encounters - brings out sticky slabs of corn bread alongside honey butter and a luscious tomato jam, definitely a candidate for take home jars. The kitchen is still hit and miss.  But that won’t matter if you are a mac’n’cheese fiend like me.  Only slightly overdosed with gouda, New York cheddar and comté, Red Rooster’s crusty version comes in its cast iron pan alongside a good salad on a wooden board, a mac-obsesso’s dream dinner for just $14.  A side of rich red grits with shrimp chorizo and peppers could be an entrée too.

        The red leaf Caesar has a certain chic. I find it soggy and strikingly sassy, though my friend who ordered it doesn’t like the taste of bottarga or smoked vinaigrette. Helga’s meatballs are smaller, now on mashed potatoes – very good - and there’s more of them, with cabbage, lingonberries and a ridiculous pointless foam.  I suspect too much thought has gone into cauliflower. Black vinegar, sesame, sumac and pine nuts are to no avail.

Meltingly rich and juicy oxtails with sweet plantains. Photo: Steven Richter

        A crab cake with spicy mayo is unremarkable. Much to my shock, chicken-liver stew toped with a fried egg and piled onto injera, the spongy Ethiopian bread, in a black cast iron baking pan is one of my two favorite dishes tonight, along with oxtails braised in Mother’s Milk stout juicy and rich, perfectly cooked, backed up with the sweetness of plantains.

“Uptown Steak Frites” with onion marmalade and truffled Béarnaise. Photo: Steven Richter

        I’m not sure what’s uptown about the “Uptown Steak Frites,” strangely cut tonight, and served  with onion marmalade, decent fries and truffled Béarnaise, but steak is always a safe retreat for spiced duck liver pudding-phobes.  The fried yard bird is no rival for Charles Gabriel’s chicken on Frederick Douglass at West 151st Street. But it’s marinated in buttermilk, painted with hot sauce and it crackles. It’s “dark meat only” gets points with me and most of my foodie pals who disdain white meat.  If your palate is so abused you think it isn’t salty or spicy enough, there’s a shaker alongside with the chef’s “hellfire” blend.

Our waiter touts African spiced pudding with apricot and red currants. Photo: Steven Richter

        For those who want to think calories don’t count above 125th Street, there is black and white mud pie or sugared sweet potato donuts.  Our waiter persuades us to try the spiced pudding with apricot and red currants. But I like the idea of sorbet by the $3 scoop or a few pieces of whiskey fudge with macadamia nuts for the table at $4. There are moments when one small sweet taste is just what I need, as long as it’s chocolate.

310 Lenox Avenue between 125th and 126th Streets, 212 792 9001. Lunch Monday to Friday 11:30 am. to 3pm. Dinner Monday to Thursday 5:30 to 10 pm. Friday to 11 pm. Saturday 11 am to 11 pm. Sunday 11 am to 9:30 pm.


Patina Restaurant Group