310 Lenox Avenue, New York NY 10037 (b/n 125th and 126th Streets; map); 212-792-9001; redroosterharlem.com
Service: Extremely friendly but still getting its bearings
Setting: Comfortable but stylish
Must-Haves: Shrimp and red Grits, Helga's Meatballs, Chicken & Egg
Cost: Appetizers $9-15, Entrees $14-32
Grade: B+. Exceptional menu design with spotty execution.
Here's the truth: as a Harlem native, I really, really want Red Rooster, Marcus Samuelsson's new 125th Street soul-food-with-a-twist spot to succeed. Despite the busloads of tourists scarfing down mediocre ribs and fried chicken from nearby Sylvia's, the dining landscape in my neck of the woods is pretty grim, devoted mostly to fast food and steam tables. I'm really excited at the prospect of a hangout that doesn't require a late-night subway ride home.
The 39-year old Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised, current Harlem resident planned the restaurant as an homage to the original shuttered Red Rooster on 138th Street, a Harlem institution where locals would commingle over drinks with the likes of Willie Mays and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. The brand-new 3,400 square foot space is beautifully designed. A large bar with a few communal tables occupies the front half of the restaurant, divided from the dining area by shelves housing jugs of spice-infused bourbon. The bourbon is for their killer drinks program which plays a large role in fueling the convivial atmosphere of the space. The large basement is slated to be opened as a multi-purpose lounge/speakeasy/art space.
He's brought along Executive Chef Andrea Bergquist, a New York restaurant vet with a resume that covers Gramercy Tavern, Craft Steak, and Tabla (her stint at Samuelsson's fizzled Merkato 55 is conspicuously left off the list). She runs the day to day kitchen operations and mans the downstairs commissary while Samuelsson gives face time at the open upstairs kitchen during service.
A large proportion of the staff are locals, many of whom have little past experience beyond the fast food and fast-casual restaurants that dot the neighborhood. There's been a sharp learning curve, but in the month or so that Red Rooster's been open, the quality of service has increased dramatically, and you can't help but applaud a chef who puts his money where his mouth is in attempting to make this a real neighborhood spot. Chatting with the throngs that pack the crowded bar area at night (a 2-hour wait on a Tuesday night!), I get the impression of a 50/50 mix between locals and visitors looking for a slice of downtown vibe up in Harlem.
If restaurants could be run on ideas alone, Red Rooster would be phenomenal, and indeed the food often soars to great heights: The appetizer-sized Dirty Rice & Shrimp ($9) made with cured Basmati rice and fragrant curry leaves may be one of the best shrimp dishes in the city—smoky, complex, and fragrant. But the problem is when great—even ingenious—ideas are occasionally held back by spotty execution.
The good news is that with each of my half dozen visits, the food's been getting better and better.
Take the Crab Cakes ($10). They've have always come packed with sweet crab, but in earlier versions, there was only a thin Pomegranate reduction saucing the plate. It's a much more balanced dish now—great even—with a creamy spiced mayo.
A stew that falls somewhere between a classic Ethiopian doro wat and a Southern-style chicken pie filling, the Chicken & Egg ($15) comes served with a runny fried egg, a small hunk of seared foie gras, and appropriately sour and spongy injera bread. It's a brilliant melding of cross-cultural comfort foods, but toned down spices and lack of salt detract from it (we still licked the cute little cast iron cassolette clean).
Similarly, a rich Spiced Duck Liver Pudding ($14) flavored with garam masala had no problems with seasoning, but arrived with a slightly curdled texture. The the dense and meaty, thick-sliced duck breast pastrami it came with was perfect.
The bar snacks are great and fill the much needed late-night quick-bite-and-a-drink hole. The Pulled Pork ($8) isn't smoky, but plenty juicy and tender with warm spices and goes great with the Big Red Rooster, a Manhattan-based cocktail made with Averna and cinnamon-infused bourbon. It comes piled on a moist slab of sweet potato bread. I also loved their beef patties, which have a flaky crust and filling more closely related to South American empanadas.
On two different occasions I've seen waiters unfamiliar with the menu mislead patrons at the expense of their wallet. On one occasion, a lone diner sitting next to me at the bar was told that his Fried Yard Bird ($18) came with no sides, so he ordered the Smoked Collard Greens ($7) only to find that his chicken already came with them. The (excellent) Yam & Sweet Potato Puree ($7) was recommended to our table as a good side dish, despite the fact that the Braised Oxtail ($26) we had ordered was served on a massive pile of them.
About those two dishes: while the oxtail was intensely flavored, it was texturally off—slightly leathery around the edges, making this the least favorite dish (in fairness, I've only tried it once). The use of plantain in the dish is a nice nod to the local Caribbean culture, but it was starchy and dry—a tender sweet plantain would have done much better in its place.
Easily leading the pack for the spot of signature dish is Samuelsson's take on fried chicken. Bell & Evans birds get brined in a mixture of coconut and buttemilk overnight, then dredged in cornstarch and flour. Deep fried and served smothered with a mace-scented gravy and a metal can of their signature spicy "Shake," it's still a work in progress. At times the crust is too crunchy, bordering on tough, and the meat is occasionally dry despite the brining. I've had it three times, and each time it's been better. Hopefully, fourth time's a charm.
Their other chicken dish, the Lemon Roasted Chicken, is a strongly North Africa-influenced plate flavored with grilled preserved lemon (the whole thing is edible, rind and all) and tender cous-cous dotted with raisins and pomegranate. We found ourselves digging for the seriously delicious cous-cous, which was moister than the slightly overcooked chicken, a problem which also plagued the Red Snapper ($26), which came in a kaffir-lime broth that tasted mostly of tomato soup.
When the stars align and the kitchen is firing on all cylinders, the results can be stunning. Their Gravlax and Purple Mustard ($13) brilliantly pairs lightly cured salmon with crisp and sour chips of dehydrated injera (the brunch version comes with pumpernickel and dill cream cheese), and the Shrimp and Red Grits ($22) is amongst the best versions of the dish I've had, despite it's huge departure from tradition. Spicy sausage and perfectly cooked shrimp swirl around in a juicy pool of creamy grits cooked down with a powerful shellfish stock dotted with basil and a soft poached egg.
Not surprisingly, Helga's Meatballs ($15), a straight-forward, no-twists version of Swedish Meatballs are also extraordinary with buttery mashed potatoes, tart lingonberry preserves, and a few fresh dill-flavored quick pickles. You'd be hard pressed to find a better plate of food anywhere.
Desserts are pretty consistently strong. The best are the Sweet Potato Doughnuts ($8), which are light and yeasty. The Spiced Pudding ($8) is also a winner with a moist, coarse crumb, as is their Chocolate Tart ($9), essentially a high-end Snickers bar that strikes the right salty and sweet balance.
So is Red Rooster the killer neighborhood hangout that I've been hoping it'll be? Absolutely. The atmosphere is great, the prices are reasonable, and the service is as personable as you could hope for. But is it a destination restaurant worth the trek uptown? Perhaps not quite yet, but if the still-being-tweaked food continues with its upward progression and the inconsistencies with execution get worked out, it will be.
Until then, I'll be waiting for you at the bar.