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)