Entries in Marcus Samuelsson (8)


The Red Rooster

It was hard not to be skeptical of Marcus Samuelsson’s new Harlem restaurant, The Red Rooster. The talented chef who had once served stellar Swedish cuisine at Aquavit, had bombed out twice since then, first with terrible Asian fusian cuisine at Riingo, and then with phoned-in pan-African cuisine at Merkato 55.

The list of the chef’s current restaurants is depressing: a surf & turf place here, a burger joint there. It makes you wonder if there’s anything he actually believes in, culinarily speaking. The Red Rooster, featuring American cuisine, is yet another concept that doesn’t resemble anything he has previously done.

Its prolonged gestation didn’t help. Announced last February and originally slated for an October opening, it was delayed repeatedly before finally opening in mid-December. Samuelsson gave preview dinners all over town, and actually won Top Chef: Masters, with the Red Rooster cited as his flagship restaurant, even though it didn’t exist yet, and wouldn’t for another five months.

For a while, Samuelsson couldn’t miss an opportunity to look foolish, most notably when he announced that bartenders at the new restaurant would be asked to submit “audition videos,” with the “winner” selected by a public vote. I have to assume that Samuelsson dropped that hare-brained scheme, since we never heard any more about it.

In September, the Red Rooster earned four stars on Yelp, even though it was three months away from serving its first meal. Yelp staff deleted the entry, but it was back again in November, again at four stars.

Did I have enough reasons to shun the place? Absolutely. I went anyway. Guess what: The Red Rooster is pretty good.

Samuelsson’s ambition here is modest, but he nails it. The space looks like “Keith McNally Comes to Harlem,” a breezy brasserie set-up with shelves of knickknacks, an open kitchen, a bright glass-lined liquor wall, a spacious bar, and ample communal table seating for walk-ins. He serves lunch and dinner currently, brunch on weekends, with breakfast expected later on.

The menu, with a vaguely African American slant, has a bit of everything, but the only outright pandering is Steak Frites with truffle bearnaise, which strangely finds its way into the cuisine of every nation, and at $32 is the most expensive item. The couple next to me ordered that steak, and it looked great, but you can get it anywhere.

If this is American cuisine, I’m not sure there’s any region or restaurant in America that it resembles, but that’s just fine. I’m gratified to see a menu with just nine appetizers ($9–15) and eight entrées ($14–32), which tells me Samuelsson has done a lot of editing, and everything he serves is probably going to be good.

A couple of items resemble the Swedish classics Samuelsson has served before (Gravlax with Purple Mustard; Meatballs with mash and lingonberry), but most hew to the American theme, even if his interpretation of them is unique, or at least unusual.

An appetizer of Dirty Rice and Shrimp ($9; above left) was accented with aged basmati and curry leaves. Hearth Baked Mac & Greens ($14; above right) comes out of the entrée section. The macaroni, made with three cheeses (gouda, cheddar, comté) had a satisfying crunch.

Portions are ample, and I left a lot of food behind. The couple next to me ordered a bowl of warm nuts ($4) from the “snacks” section of the menu: “This dish could feed six people,” the husband said, as he offered to share it with me. A side order of corn bred ($4) came with two thick slices: warm and buttery, it hardly needed the extra butter that came with it.

Even on a Sunday evening, the restaurant was almost full, but I was seated immediately at one of the communal tables. For a while, it seemed like the server had forgotten me—the water glass remained empty until the meal was nearly over—but the food came out promptly. The space has a lively buzz, but the ambient noise isn’t overbearing.

Samuelsson himself was in the house (and introduced himself), which I hadn’t expected on a Sunday—but then, the professional reviews have yet to appear, and you never know when a critic will drop in. I think they’re going to like this place. The food is well made, coherently thought out, and certainly a big improvement over anything I know of in the area.

Although downtowners still think of Harlem as remote, the restaurant is literally half a block from the 2/3 express train stop at 125th Street: from many points in Manhattan, it’s probably closer (by train) than many popular downtown and Brooklyn places. But Samuelsson surely knows that he’ll need neighborhood support. For food this good, and at these prices, I think he’ll get it.

The Red Rooster (310 Lenox Avenue between 125th & 126th Streets, Harlem)

Food: *½
Service: *
Ambiance: *½
Overall: *½


Merkato 55

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Merkato 55: Gorgeous, but a ghost town

Note: Merkato 55 bit the dust in June 2009. It re-opened as a pan-Mediterranean restaurant, Le 55. A Brazilian super-model is the owner, and Philip Guardione, from the Four Seasons in Milan, is the chef. We wish them good luck with that.


What must it be like to invest a king’s ransom in a restaurant that flops? Perhaps the owners of Merkato 55 can tell us.

In this gorgeous space, chef Marcus Samuelsson tries to do for African cuisine what Jean-Georges Vongerichten did for Pan-Asian street food at Spice Market, just a few blocks away. But four years after Vongerichten’s success, the once trendy Meatpacking District is cursed. No restaurant with serious pretentions has succeeded here lately, and Merkato 55 now seems doomed. It was a ghost town at 7:00 p.m. on a Saturday evening. When we left an hour later, it was a ghost town still.

Reviews were mixed. Frank Bruni in the Times and Steve Cuozzo in the Post weren’t impressed, but Adam Platt in New York awarded two stars, and Restaurant Girl in the Daily News an amazing three. It appears that the dining public agrees with Bruni and Cuozzo. When a restaurant is nearly empty on a weekend evening, the prognosis must be grim indeed. Eater.com put Merkato 55 on deathwatch, and then pronounced it a shitshow.

Shrimp Piri Piri

It doesn’t help that Samuelsson’s performance is phoned in, and he is only a small-part owner here. Even during the opening period, he was hardly ever sighted. His attentions are no doubt focused on his flagship Swedish restaurant, Aquavit, and various other marketing gimmicks that have his name attached.

For all of that, the food at Merkato 55 isn’t bad, though it isn’t great either. The menu has various “small bites” from $3–13, appetizers $12–18, entrées $19–37, and side dishes $6–10. I’m not sure how “African” it is, and as Cuozzo noted, on a continent that is home to 53 nations and 900 million people, any concept of a single “cuisine” is probably in Samuelson’s imagination.

To start, my son and I shared Grilled Shrimp Piri Piri ($17), which were slathered in a forgettable, gloppy sauce on a bed of equally forgettable Baby Romaine lettuce.

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Left: Merguez Sausage; Right: Chicken Doro Wat

An entrée of Merguez Sausage ($19) is not for those with big appetites, but the contrast of spicy sausage with watermelon and corn worked for me. I loved the Spicy Chicken Doro Wat ($27)—a luscious, tender chicken curry—but it may not be to all tastes: my son absolutely hated it.

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Left: Steak Dakar; Right: Merkato Fries

Since my son had detested both the appetizer and the entrée, we ordered the Steak Dakar ($34). The kitchen did a respectable job with the steak, and it’s a suitable bail-out dish for those who mistrust the rest of the menu, but it’s no more African than the fries that came with it (also available as an $8 side dish). I found the fries too salty, but my son liked them.

The beverage menu offers several versions of infused rum punch, overpriced at $14. I found mine overly sweet, dominated by lime juice, and offering no more than a splash of rum.

Merkato 55 is a decent place. If I were in the neighborhood, I’d happily go back for the Chicken Doro Wat, though I’m not sure what else you can depend on. Service was attentive, but the staff had hardly anyone else to look after. I’ll be surprised if Merkato 55 is still around next year.

Merkato 55 (55 Gansevoort St. between Greenwich & Washington Sts., Meatpacking District)

Food: *
Service: *
Ambiance: **
Overall: *


The Payoff: Merkato 55

Today, Frank Bruni drops one star on Merkato 55, finding the highs and lows that we expected. The highs:

With the qualified exceptions of Morocco and Egypt, Africa hasn’t received much high-gloss treatment on the Manhattan restaurant scene…

Merkato 55 fixes that, and how.

With some 150 seats on two elaborately decorated levels in the overexposed, overwrought, when-will-it-be-over meatpacking district, it does more than give many African cuisines a degree of conventional polish they don’t usually get…

That is not a bad concept, and Merkato 55, at its best, is a bold adventure, ranging across the entire African continent in search of dishes you don’t see often enough and dishes you haven’t seen before.

The lows:

The menu mingles inspiration with too many hedges: the tuna tartar that astonishingly exists in every cuisine’s canon, at least once that canon has been translated for modern-day New York; a lobster salad with ambiguous sub- or supra-Saharan bearings; a thinly veiled steak frites; a rack of lamb — supposedly graced with an Ethiopian berbere spice mixture, including garlic, red pepper, cardamom and fenugreek — that could be any restaurant’s rack of lamb.

My companions and I had lovely service and we had laughable service, usually on different nights but sometimes on the same one.

We and Eater both win $2 on our hypothetical one-dollar bets.

              Eater       NYJ
Bankroll $86.50   $97.67
Gain/Loss +2.00   +2.00
Total $88.50   $99.67
 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 38–15   38–15

Rolling the Dice: Merkato 55

Every week, we take our turn with Lady Luck on the BruniBetting odds as posted by Eater. Just for kicks, we track Eater’s bet too, and see who is better at guessing what the unpredictable Bruni will do. We track our sins with an imaginary $1 bet every week.

The Line: Tomorrow, Frank Bruni reviews Marcus Samuelsson’s homage to Africa, Merkato 55. The Eater oddsmakers have set the action as follows (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars: 6-1
One Star: 2-1 √√
Two Stars: 3-1
Three Stars: 9-1
Four Stars: 25,000-1

merkato_logo.pngThe Skinny: Here’s a brief primer on Merkato 55.

Marcus Samuelsson was born of African parents, but raised in Sweden. He became executive chef at the star-endowed Aquavit (which features Swedish cuisine) at an extremely young age, and by most accounts the restaurant is still delivering the goods, night after night—not withstanding our mildly disappointing meal there.

Merkato 55 offers Samuelsson’s take on African cuisine, but the concept is problematic on almost every level. Samuelsson is hardly ever there, and according to Eater, “he’s said to own a single-digit percentage of the restaurant.” Does it even make sense to claim to cover a whole continent?

Samuelsson’s record outside of Aquavit doesn’t inspire confidence. His only other non-Swedish venture was the Asian-fusion Riingo. It’s still open after more than four years, but it’s totally off the foodie radar. When we visited recently, we quickly saw why. And it has a lot in common with Merkato 55: a cuisine Samuelsson isn’t known for, a restaurant he pays no attention to.

Merkato 55 is in the Meatpacking District, which is better known for pub-crawling tourists than serious cuisine. There are plenty of restaurants here, but the neighborhood hasn’t had a critical success since Spice Market, four years ago. Bruni has never liked a Meatpacking District restaurant.

Early reviewers agree that it’s possible to cobble together a good meal at Merkato 55. The better dishes are probably good for at least one star, especially as there’s not much else in New York to compare them to. Bruni seldom gives the goose-egg unless a restaurant is hideously over-priced, or there’s almost nothing worth ordering. Merkato 55 is better than that.

But to get two stars, Merkato 55 will have to have a high ratio of hits to misses. Bruni will be skeptical of the absentee chef and a neighborhood where restaurants don’t stay good for long.

The Bet: We agree with Eater that Frank Bruni will award one star to Merkato 55 this week.




Note: Riingo closed in 2012. The space is now called Atrium, run by ESquared Hospitality, the same folks behind BLT Steak, BLT Prime, etc.


I overlooked Riingo when it opened almost four years ago in the Alex Hotel. My girlfriend is a fan of the chef/owner, Marcus Samuelsson, who also runs the Swedish restaurant Aquavit, so I figured a visit was past due.

The restaurant is Samuelsson’s take on Asian Fusion, which was no longer a new concept when Riingo opened. It garnered mixed reviews: Amanda Hesser delivered a two-star rave in the Times, but Adam Platt in New York (in his pre-star system days) was less impressed.

Amuse-bouche: Mystery Mackerel

It’s possible to see why Hesser liked the place, as everything we tried had potential. But alas, the execution was truly incompetent, and it was coupled with some of the most bumbling service we’ve seen in a long time.

The menu offers the standard appetizers ($5–14), salads ($10–16), entrées ($23–32) and side dishes ($5–6), along with a Japanese menu offering sushi, sashimi, and rolls. All the categories have an eclectic mix, so “tuna foie gras” appears on the sushi menu, and the entrées accommodate interlopers like steak frites. As it is located in a hotel, Riingo also serves breakfast and lunch, along with weekend brunch.

The room is decked out in the expected style, but the rear dining room, in which we were seated, is surprisingly cramped, and servers struggled to negotiate the space. The host made the odd comment that we had the best seats in the house. Our small table with overlapping placemats seemed like nothing of the kind.

The amuse-bouche seemed to be mackerel something-or-other; the explanation was inaudible. The bread service included stale rolls and something much better: a spicy ruffly potato-chip like substance along with a guacamole-like dip (all offered without explanation). As the server took the amuse plates away, he put our dirty forks back on the placemats, as one would do at a cheap diner. They can’t afford clean forks?

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Don’t adjust your television set: Roasted Beet Salad ($12; above left) came in an odd-shaped bowl that tilted slightly to the right. The kitchen forgot the goat cheese that was supposed to come with it. The chicken that was supposed to be in Chicken Dumplings ($10; above right) was scarcely a rumor, as it was overwhelmed by a sour broth.

riingo03.jpgThere was no false advertising about Rare Tuna ($26; left). As you can see in the photo, it’s as rare as can be, but the accompanying pumpkin purée was lukewarm and tasteless. Bok choy was warm, but had been left in the steamer too long.

My girlfriend had the Chili-Roasted Chicken ($23), which was dry from over-cooking.

We ordered wine along with our food. When I pointed to the item I wanted, the server asked, “By the bottle?” I thought this was peculiar, as the menu didn’t indicate that it was available by the glass.

Matters only got stranger, as half-an-hour (and our appetizers) came and went, but no wine appeared. When it finally came, the server muttered that they had trouble locating my selection in the cellar. By that time we no longer wanted it, so I asked for two glasses; naturally, that wine wasn’t available by the glass, so I substituted an undistinguished pinot noir.

The couple at the next table overheard us, and mentioned that their wine too had not arrived until after the appetizers. We started watching the dining room, and sure enough, at least two other tables had the same experience, with wine delivered after—and in at least one case, long after—the appetizers had been served, consumed, and taken away.

For the usual petits-fours, Riingo had a couple of small oatmeal cookies, which naturally were stale. Perhaps Riingo was once a fine restaurant, but the kitchen and serving staff are have become sloppy, veering on incompetent. I can only hope that Samuelsson will rattle the trees, fire a few people, and get this restaurant back on track.

Riingo (205 E. 45th Street, east of Third Avenue, East Midtown)

Food: mediocre
Service: sloppy
Ambiance: acceptable
Overall: sad


Return to Aquavit Cafe

My friend and I were wowed by our dinner at Aquavit Cafe in April. The kitchen sent out a bunch of free food, and everything we had was first-rate, so we decided to try it again on Saturday night.

We both decided on the prix fixe ($37), choosing the herring sampler and the Swedish meatballs. I chose the Arctic Circle for dessert. I described these dishes in two earlier reports (here and here), so I won’t repeat myself. This time, there was no free food—not that I had any right to expect any. Service was somewhat less efficient than before.

A $20 wine pairing is available with the prix fixe. The herring sampler came with beer and potato vodka, as in the main dining room. It’s a Swedish tradition, and I can’t complain. But the meatballs came with the most bitter Merlot I’ve ever been served. Didn’t these guys see Sideways? This was an uninspired choice, to say the least. Happily, fizzy dessert wine with our third course washed away the Merlot’s acidic taste.

I continue to like Aquavit Cafe for an offbeat casual dinner. It’s also an excellent date place, as you can actually hear yourself talk—an increasingly rare luxury in Manhattan restaurants.

Aquavit Cafe (65 E 55th St between Park & Madison Aves, East Midtown)

Food: *½
Service: *
Ambiance: **
Overall: *½



Note: This is a review under chef Marcus Samuelsson, who no longer cooks at Aquavit. (He remains a minority partner.) Marcus Jernmark is his replacement.

My friend and I had a terrific meal at the Aquavit Cafe in April (report here), so we were tempted to try the main dining room. Our dinner there a couple of weeks ago was peculiarly underwhelming.

We had the three-course prix fixe ($80). My friend started with the Herring Sampler, which came with a glass of beer and a shot of what must have been 100-proof potato vodka. I had a foie gras starter, but the accompanying strips of bacon stole the show.

For the main course, my friend had the bacon wrapped New York strip, and again, she found that the bacon stole the show. Spice rubbed venison loin came in a peculiar apple-pine broth that turned the dish into a swimming pool. I found the dessert choices underwhelming, and settled on a selection of three scoops of ice cream.

Aquavit is, of course, capable of great things, but on this occasion we weren’t wowed. The design is supposed to suggest Scandinavian minimalism, but my friend, who has spent a lot of time in Sweden, found the space sterile.

Aquavit (65 E. 55th St. between Park & Madison Avenues, East Midtown)

Food: **
Service: **½
Ambiance: **½
Overall: **


Aquavit Cafe

Note: Click here for a more recent visit to Aquavit Cafe. It was less impressive the second time around.

My friend and I dined at Aquavit Cafe last Friday night. As Frank Bruni noted in that day’s paper, there are now several restaurants in New York that have an informal cafe attached to a fancy main dining room. I’ve tried several of these “little sister” restaurants, and the Aquavit Cafe is the most refined of them. Despite its comparative informality, tables are generously spaced, and there’s plenty of fabric to deaden the sound. Service is top-notch.

We started with cocktails (a bit pricey at $14 ea.), two kinds of Swedish bread with luscious goat cheese butter, and an amuse of toast with sour cream and a hot mushroom sauce.

My friend ordered the Herring Sampler ($12), while I had the Salmon Sampler ($18), and we each sampled each other’s plates. My friend observed that my appetizer had “enough salmon to feed all of Chelsea.” Okay, not quite, but it was a large portion. On days when I’ve had a full lunch, it could be dinner all by itself. But it is also perfectly prepared, and not at all “fishy.”

Quite to our surprise, the kitchen sent out mid-course plates, compliments of the house. We aren’t celebrities or regulars, and we weren’t spending much on liquor, so this was most unexpected. My friend was served a lobster roll, while I got a plate of duck carpaccio.

For the entrees, my friend had the Swedish meatballs ($18), one of chef Marcus Samuelson’s specialties, made with beef, veal, and pork. It was an enormous portion, and even after I shared a bit of it, she was unable to finish. I ordered the hog smoked salmon, which was poached in wine, cauliflower, pearl onions and lentils. (I know, salmon twice — what was I thinking)? This was a bit bland, as I am wont to find with fish courses, but technically excellent. The kitchen recommends paired wines with each entree, and we adopted their excellent suggestions ($14 ea.).

When my friend ordered, our waiter noted that her appetizer and entree choice were both on the prix fixe, so she might as well get that, and have dessert in the bargain. She had the Arctic Circle, a terrific goat cheese parfait with blueberry sorbet and passion fruit curd. Although I had not ordered dessert, the kitchen sent out a plate of chocolate cake for me anyway, compliments of the house.

We left Aquavit happy as could be, stuffed to the gills, and eager to try the main dining room. The bill for all of that food was just $121 with tax. I left a 25% tip.

Aquavit Cafe (65 E. 55th St. between Park & Madison Aves, East Midtown)

Food: ***
Service: ***
Ambiance: **
Overall: ***