Wednesday, August 1, 2012


There's no question that Harlem is enjoying a revivification, and the corner of 125th street and Lenox Avenue might just be the cornerstone.  With the iconic Sylvia's sparkling marquis (Sylvia Wood, rest in peace) just up the block, it was Marcus Samuelsson's electric Red Rooster that lured me uptown.  This place has been here long enough that it feels like an integral fixture of the neighborhood.  There's a fantastic mix of locals, transplants, hipsters and regulars... and celebrities.  Not only did Marcus himself show up for a brief cameo right as our mains were delivered, Tyson Beckford was in the house (as good if not better looking than ever).  Yes, we had to wait a while for our 7:30 table even thought we arrived with utmost punctuality, but it's a fun scene.  A fun restaurant to be it, so I didn't mind watching the crowd and admiring the eclectic tchotchke, ranging from tribal figurines to vintage photos to Marcus's two cookbooks.

But what is most important about a restaurant?  Ah, yes.  The obvious question is answered here by an outstanding array of robust and exotic seasoning conveyed by authentic soul food staples, fusing Samuelsson's heritage.  Departing Aquavit, he left his impeccable finesse of fine dining Swedish really with nothing left to prove, and at Red Rooster combines the Ethiopian roots that he missed growing up with an understanding of Southern American cookery that must run in his blood.  Because everything we had at Red Rooster was worth crowing about.   Instead, we began with that extremely summery salad of watermelon and Heirloom tomatoes, with shreds of fresh basil and crumbles of goat cheese, which I found perfectly proportioned but in retrospect least fantastic of our orders.  My salad of Market Greens teamed up King Oyster mushrooms (which I wish had been grilled, but were instead raw) with tiny bits of cauliflower and radishes, and while I initially wanted more of those elements along with the lettuces, the intriguing sherry vinaigrette more than compensated, presenting some novel flavors I still can't quite thumb, but made each leaflet kind of an adventure.  In some bites, I'd taste cumin, in others I think I detected a hint of asoefetida, although that elusive seasoning is always tough to identify.

Our mains continued on this rewarding trajectory.  The Harlem Chowder screamed at me from the menu, but at $72 for the two-person portion, it would've obliterated ordering much else.    Plus, our waiter described the rich-but-creamless, white wine-enhanced tomato broth fraught with shell-on clams, mussels and scallops and roasted corn, topped with a whole roasted lobster  so vividly that I almost thought that I had already had it.  Instead, we got the signature Yard Bird, which specified dark meat including a hulking thigh and Flintstonian drumstick, bronzed copper and cradled in a smooth bed of mashed, lashed with gravy subtly sweetened with musky white mace.  Served with a bracing chili hot sauce (delectable) and a small crock of pickles, it benefitted from a side order summer vegetables, which included snap peas, baby zucchini, cipolline onions, carrots and rounds of sweet corn all drizzled in a thick green onion vinaigrette and a sprinkle of black sesame.
Actually, the Yard Bird's pickles deceived me into thinking those were the snack of pickles that we ordered, which I now realized never arrived.  Service is not without fault; we were left without forks for our entrees, and there was an extended lapse after our entrees concluded before there was any mention of coffee or dessert.  But the waitstaff is handsome, quite charming and knowledgeable when you can pin them down.  They often seem to have more important tasks, of which surveying the diverse crowd might be most critical.

At any rate, in lieu of the chowder, catfish and grits was absolutely award-winning: the catfish was blackened and zesty- a welcome respite from the omnipresent cornbread crust. Instead, the corn element was represented by loose, textured grits, corn-sweet and thick, studded with smoky chunks of chorizo.  Big-as-I've-seen caper berries, which I initially mistook for slices of okra, were substantially mature and tasted more like green olives than pungent capers.  (I would've preferred the okra.)  And I wouldn't have minded the seasoning even a bit kickier, but the chili sauce from the chicken swooped in for an assist.

Finally, belts loosened (or they would've been had I been wearing one), we tucked into a cool buttermilk pannacotta, flanked by a small haystack of softly plump summer berries.  A quenelle of raspberry sorbet sat atop a thin, nutty cracker smeared with sticky jam, and 'twixt the two lodged a dense cake scented with frangipane, moist and dense of crumb.

There's little I didn't like about Red Rooster.  Enough so that lingering among the handsome crowd underneath a moonlit sky, with a pleasant din of conversation and clinking glasses and a rare, comfortable summer breeze urged me to stay put.   The soulful music of a live band playing inside still had one set yet to play.  Awareness, however, of the one hundred plus block journey home encouraged us to relinquish our table (at the late hour of 10:30pm there were still those waiting for one upon which to dine).  But it's not a distance long enough, I now know, to prohibit a repeat  visit.  Red Rooster is worth that hike and then some.

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