After several “soft openings”, Marcus Samuelsson finally launched his highly anticipated Harlem restaurant, Red Rooster. Conveniently nestled off of 125th street and Lenox, the eatery does as much for Harlem as the metropolitan Harlemite patrons do for the restaurant. The vibe feels like a “good ole’ days” New York City, where the crowd is interesting and varied, and everyone is comfortably packed in and lounging, while trying to hustle a table or seat at the bar.
I recently had the chance to make it uptown on a cold Monday evening and the place was still bustling with atmosphere that could easily replace dinner conversation with people watching. Perhaps the best watch of the night was none other than the famous chef/food activist/restrantuear/owner, Mr. Samuelsson himself – who was going around greeting the everyday patrons (as if he wasn’t a celebrity:)
Similar to Samuelsson’s recently closed NYC establishment, Merkato 55, Rooster has incited a look, feel and menu that conjures up remnants of cultures and traditions of the African Diaspora. The interior boasts a vintage feeling, with a sleek Savoy-like bar mixed with a modern seating plan (shared tables…so New York).
Perhaps my favorite elements are the decor accents such as old sepia toned family photos pinned up at random on the bathroom walls, and of course the extensive collection of African-American artwork and books that are shelved in a rustic case on the wall, peppered in with old southern food products. Samuelsson (who I’m told is a collector), has even commissioned original works from big time black artists such as Sanford Biggers and Lorna Simpson.
Most important is the food. With Ethiopian heritage and being passionate about food as it relates to culture, Samuelsson has done a balanced take on American cuisine. From covering your Southern staples, Shrimp and Red Grits, to throwing in some Caribbean delights like Braised Oxtail, there’s something for everyone. The Smoked Collard Greens are divine, as is the Whiskey Fudge dessert (which I told him should be re-named “Sin on a Saucer”). The Fried Yard Bird – which is the cornerstone of southern cuisine, is hardly just Fried Chicken. It, along with the versatile menu and reasonable pricing, should feel like a stable replacement for all of the NYC eateries of its kind that came before and did not stay…finally the chickens have come home to roost!