Red Rooster, celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson’s newest eatery just off 125th Street in Harlem, has opened with quite a bit of fanfare – from critics, from locals, from ‘foodies.’ There’s been so much hype and positive feedback that getting a reservation at ‘the Rooster’ is virtually impossible – it’s morphed into a game of patiently checking and double-checking the website each day, of calling the hostess at open, and of refreshing Opentable. Of course, you could just stop by – but for those of us that live a good 100+ blocks downtown, that option is more than a little daunting.
Red Rooster is beautifully designed – it’s bright and airy, chic yet ‘homey’, spacious, stuffed with Americana and trinkets that seem like nostalgic bits of Samuelsson’s life, pleasingly rustic, and so forth. It has a take-out market, a ‘breakfast nook,’ a full bar, and, of course, a restaurant. The breakfast nook is just a coffee corner, with baked goods and a smiling face, but it seems like the sort of ideal coffee stop for locals on their way to work in the morning, a refreshing break from the eponymous Starbucks. The bar is marvelous. Situated at the front of the space, it is mostly open to the street in clement weather, round and spacious, stocked with local beers, quirky liqueurs, infused liquors, and unusual wines. Around the circular bar, there is plenty of room for groups to imbibe the funky house cocktails or the wine on tap.
The dining room, oriented behind the bar in the back of the restaurant, is casual with wooden tables, sparsely set. The wall surrounding the partially-open kitchen is decorated as a faux-blackboard – with scribblings and etchings covering almost every inch. Here and there, you’ll see references to roosters – and a bright red statute of one stands proudly on a shelf. The look blends the rusticity of a remote farm with the ‘rustic chic’ trend overtaking Manhattan. Red Rooster is an illuminating cross-section of New York – grungy hipsters mix with Harlem residents, with West Village fashionistas, with adventurous corporate types, with people of all races, ages, and walks of life. In very few neighborhoods and under the direction of very few chefs could a restaurant attractive to so many different types of people exist successfully. Red Rooster excels magnificently in this regard.
The food served at Red Rooster Harlem tracks the twists and turns of Marcus Samuelsson’s life. In the past, Samuelsson has focused on upscale Scandinavian dining (at Aquavit), African fusion (at close Merkato 55), and even Japanese fare (at closed Riingo). Red Rooster represents a compilation of cuisines Samuelsson has experimented with in the past and that speak to his own multicultural history. In Helga’s Meatballs, diners get a rich taste of Stockholm; served with creamy mashed potatoes and sweet deep red lingonberries, the classic Swedish meatballs are addictive. In the Uptown Steak Frites, you can get a taste of old school fat-wallet New York; the 10oz thick sirloin is drenched in a truffle bearnaise sauce and topped with a sweet onion marmalade.
Much of the rest of the menu takes its cues from the Southern comfort food for which Harlem is known. The ‘mac & greens’ is a decadent twist on mac n’ cheese, made with a blend of comte, gouda, and good ole New York State cheddar; there’s a classic blackened catfish with fried pickles and a fried chicken with white gravy and hot sauce. In terms of starters, Samuelsson serves up a mean rendition of dirty rice, that’s slightly crispy and stuffed with shrimp and almonds; lump blue crab cakes are all crab meat, no breading, and wonderful with a thick spicy mayo. Similarly, the desserts are all Southern-inspired and walk the line between decadent and truly sinful. The black & white mud is a rich creamy cross between a pie and a cake, served on a chewy chocolate cookie crust; it’s all gooey chocolatey goodness that’s almost too rich to finish in one sitting. The coffee & doughnuts is comparatively lighter and Samuelsson’s original all-American take on profiteroles – and no, there is no cup o’ joe involved.
Red Rooster is perhaps not as revelatory as it has been lauded to be by everyone from Sam Sifton to my friends’ parents. Anywhere outside of Harlem, this restaurant would be well-received and well-liked, yet not obsessed over. However, Marcus Samuelsson’s passionate desire to bring sophisticated neighborhood dining to Harlem is admirable and has translated into the remarkable success that is Red Rooster. For people who like to eat out and explore New York by eating out, it’s a restaurant to be added to the ‘must-try’ list. Yet, if you’re not from Harlem and one to stick to eating out in your general neighborhood, I’d argue that you could find a similar environment with a similarly well-executed menu without having to venture to 125th Street.
Perfect For: drinks at the bar, fine dining hipsters, Manhattan North dining, adventurous Columbia students, Top Chef fanatics