"Welcome to Harlem," was the greeting diners got from a smiling Marcus Samuelsson at the Friday night opening of Red Rooster, his eagerly anticipated Harlem restaurant and lounge. A six-year resident of the neighborhood, he's banking his reputation and payroll on Harlem being able to support a moderately high-end restaurant. It's a bold move in a neighborhood whose main dining draw is Sylvia's, a restaurant known more for its history and longevity than its cuisine, which is fine, but not particularly distinguished.
The food at Red Rooster reveals itself slowly, deftly weaving soul food classics with Samuelsson's signature Scandinavian and African hits. If first impressions count for anything, the anticipation has been worth it.
Case in point: moist, crisp Fried Yardbird ($17, a little too crisp on this visit) starts out like a good Southern version of the dish before unveiling a faint undertone of coconut (it's brined in a mixture of coconut and buttermilk for 3 days). Lightly cured Gravlax ($7) is served with purple mustard and tangy injera, the Ethiopian flatbread which they bake into crisp pita-like chips.
Beef Patties ($5) are extraordinarily light and flaky. An homage to the Jamaican-style patty shops that dot the neighborhood, Red Rooster's are more like Central American empanadas, lightly spiced, and served with an excellent tomatillo sauce.
Most of the soul-food classics make slightly twisted appearances as well. Shrimp and Dirty Rice ($9) is reinvented with fragrant Basmati. Mac and Green ($14) is orecchiette with a bechamel-based three-cheese sauce and lightly smoked collards (also available as a side order for $7).
It's a fun space, equal parts restaurant and bar. I live only a few blocks away and look forward to the introduction of a bar menu and more polished service, which for now, was friendly, but predictably full of opening-night snafus.