First Red Rooster was going to open later this year (2010). Then Chef Marcus Samuelsson's Harlem restaurant was going to open sometime after Labor Day. Early December was the next date. The restaurant finally opened in mid-December. During the following two months I tried to get a reservation without luck. "We're totally booked," the polite hostess responded each time. "But if you come up, you're more than welcome to wait for a spot at the communal table and we'll do our best to accomodate you."
Two months of waiting is Brooklyn Fare, or Momofuku fried chicken territory. So I took her advice and went uptown without a reservation at 5:15 pm on a Saturday. After a few bourbon-based drinks near the host's station and assuring them I'd be in and out in an hour and a half, I was actually seated in the dining room.
There was a buzz at the bar and in the dining room — just showing up seemed like an ante. This is Harlem, this is Marcus, this is exciting — the energy seemed to shout. Red Rooster isn't the first contemporary effort to bring fine dining to Harlem. Chefs Ryan Skeen and David Santos both respectively made a go of The Five and Diamond. But Marcus Samuelsson brings celebrity buzz. The burning question was, could an Ethiopian chef with Scandinavian influence pull off modern Southern comfort food in Harlem?
The appetizer menu was full of potential landmines: dirty rice, crab cakes, and corn tacos. Pickled beets with hazelnuts, arugula, and Manchego didn't arrive looking much like a beet dish, and were mild in flavor — a good reintroduction for beet-haters. Much more fulfilling was the spiced duck liver pudding with duck pastrami, almond and pear. The portion was a tease, but the smoothness and flavor delivered the delivery you'd hope for. Corn bread, more in line with the southern theme was sliced from a loaf, almost a pound cake corn bread, warm with a pleasant sweet, acidic chutney.
Southern in nature or otherwise, these dishes are going to draw curiosity with a chef of this notoriety behind them: fried chicken, braised oxtail, steak frites, grits, meatballs. Just months ago, Chef Samuelsson had talked about how current trends had him smiling about how his grandmother's Swedish meatballs bould be featured on a New York City menu. That's the kind of dish you have to order. The lingonberry and pickled cucmber slices were tart and mildly vinegary. Too bad the meatballs were dry.
Grilled red snapper with sour tomato broth and Kaffir lime proved light, moist and flavorful with an enjoyable tang. And the hearth-baked mac and greens with gouda, New York Cheddar, and comté were creamy, and sharp in flavor — a strong rendition.
But the true test of the meal was obvious, the fried yard bird with white mace gravy, hot sauce, and shake. The chicken was all dark meat. Skin was crispy-crunchy. Meat was moist and well-seasoned. Hot sauce tasted homemade and provided respectable mmph. In places that advertise shake, you don't expect it to taste mostly of Old Bay. Still, it all came together as a very respectable rendition — a contender for the city's top ten... except the gravy, which presented a problem because of the way it was billed.
Calling your fried chicken yard bird with white mace gravy harkens a colloquialism that means serious traditional, classic, southern fried chicken. After all, yard bird means you're cooking chicken from your yard. That appellation leads you to expect classic white gravy. You appreciate the mace shout-out. It's not an ingredient many of us see highlighted. Even for Southerners it's most notabe for being used in the family gravy recipe.
But white gravy is meant to be thick, starting with lots of flour and cream — something to match up to the fried chicken. This rendition was lost — a mix between white and brown. Brown gravy is what you have with turkey. White gravy is creamy and thick. This was not a white gravy. As good as it was, the name is going to send any purist walking away grumbling.
Desserts feature flavor profiles with comforting familiarity: peanut and chocolate with caramel ice cream and flan with coconut and caramel. A warm apple pie with soft Cheddar crust and vanilla whip was strong, not too sweet, with slices of apple that still had texture, a crust with cheesy tones. But the sweet potato doughnuts with cinnamon sugar were stronger — light.
Two months in, and you're encouraged. The chef is in the kitchen. Crowds pack the space. You go with a long subway ride under your belt and leave more than rewarded with thoughts and flavors to discuss on the trip back. Question is, can you get a reservation?