Red Rooster: Harlem's Biggest Rip-Off
In urgent need of respite, we walked into Red Rooster famished after helping a friend move uptown. We walked in without having read reviews, but assumed it would satisfy us considering the prestige chef Marcus Samuelsson earned after working as executive chef at the Nordic fine-dining restaurant Aquavit, winning Top Chef Masters season 2, and cooking at the Obama’s first state dinner. Despite this and the acid eating away at the lining of our empty stomachs, we walked out before filling our bellies.
Samuelsson’s goal opening Red Rooster was to cook American comfort food punctuated with influences from his Swedish and African roots. After walking in the door between two huge bouncers and taking a look at the ludicrously priced menu, Samuelsson’s spiel about the restaurant on his personal website became laughable: “I want this to be a place where people from all walks of life break bread together”. Dear Chef Samuelsson, do you realize that people of all walks of life can’t afford to pay $8 for fries? Moreover, after swimming upstream through a crowd of sequins, suits, and platform shoes, Red Rooster hardly seemed like the ideal place to break bread. The restaurant had more people trying to find someone to go home with than serious diners.
The atmosphere was unpleasant but we were only there for the food, not the meat market in front of the bar. We started by ordering cornbread, fries, and mac & cheese, with the intention to order more once our hands stopped shaking due to low blood sugar. The cornbread ($4) helped—it wasn’t terrible, but very sweet and lacking sufficient salt. The ($8!) “parmesan frites” were pale, flaccid, and unsalted. They were covered in grains of something that closely resembled that shelf-stable Kraft in the green cardboard and plastic cylinder—not the Parmigiano-Reggiano in my fridge at home. When we politely asked our server for golden brown, salted fries sans-parmesan, we received yet another order of limp white spuds dusted with the dreaded faux-parm nearly twenty minutes later. Tired, hungry, and increasingly irritated by the lackluster service and meat market-vibe, the pathetic fries left us on the brink of walking out: “If you can’t open a bag of frozen potato sticks and throw them in a fryer until they look like they’re done what can you do right?”—not mac and cheese, evidently. We barely touched it. It was bland and oily and set us back $18 and if there weren’t beer in our hands there would’ve been hell to pay as our tempers reached a boiling point.
While staring at the full basket of fries and ramekin of mac and cheese, we serious considered dining and dashing. After turning toward the sea in front of the bar and the nearly 300 pound bouncers, we knew we wouldn’t make it without getting hung out to dry. It took fifteen minutes and two reminders for our server to make it happen, but we reluctantly paid the check nonetheless.
Walking out hungry and angry, we pondered how Red Rooster could be so popular and the biggest restaurant rip off I’d experienced in months. Is the NYC dining out crowd more clueless than we’d thought? It seems that Red Rooster’s success is derived from Samuelsson’s shameless self-promotion on the Food Network and his extensive, narcissistic personal website (check out all the cute photos of him on there and the blog frequently updated by his team). While meandering toward the subway we pondered whether restaurants were going the same way as commercialized rap music, with one’s success to be determined by a persona rather than the quality and integrity of the product. We left with two major conclusions: first, avoid any restaurant with multiple bouncers; second, Samuelsson is too busy globetrotting, refining his image, and judging Chopped to properly manage his restaurants.