You would have to be living under a rock or in a world devoid of foodie and pop culture news (ahh, in a Kardashian-less bliss I imagine) to not have heard about Red Rooster Harlem. In case you didn’t know: Celebrity Chef Marcus Samuelsson opened Red Rooster, his hot spot du jour, on Lenox Avenue in Harlem; this was viewed as as proof of or incentive for the gentrification of Harlem. The locals, foodie elite and mobile Manhattanites all flocked immediately to Red Rooster, extolling its virtures to anyone that will listen. Unanimously glowing reviews, the “exotic” location and nearly impossible to obtain reservations made for a perfect storm of hype. Bottom line: Under the watchful eye of Sylvia’s only a few blocks away, Samuelsson has succeeded in creating an atmosphere and menu of his complete invention, mixing some standard ideas with a blast of cool and swagger, rather than make a cheesy interpretation of what a soul food joint should look like.
The vibe of Red Rooster is undoubtedly fun, and almost effortlessly cool. The crowd is dressed nicely, and as trite as it sounds, really is a mix of different types of people. Even in New York City, sometimes a crowd at a restaurant is practically dictated by the location (Tribeca Moms, LES hipsters, West Village couples, etc) but the Red Rooster really is a true destination for everyone, even locals. The front room is airy with big windows and a huge bar, and there is some communal seating and outdoor seating as well. The host staff was friendly and fairly efficient, we waited about 20 mins after our reservation time to be seated.The main dining room is a mix of tables and banquettes, and it backs up onto the open kitchen. Seated in front of the kitchen, I was actually able to turn around and ask the chefs about the status of my chicken. Our waiter was pretty flaky and I am not entirely unconvinced that he didn’t leave altogether at one point during our meal, but even that didn’t dampen the fun that was had. I am not sure if I would have been so tolerant in my own neighborhood, but I was under the heady haze of Harlem, so as if on vacation, I accepted the service with a grain of salt.
Now, about that food. We were ready to abandon all thoughts of calories in the pursuit of an authentic and decadent soul food experience. Corn bread, actually listed on the menu as a snack, was suggested to us when we sat down, in a clever bit of up-selling; the bread itself was dense and thick, complemented nicely by whatever butter and jelly came with it. See above for the glorious picture of our appetizer, by far the best thing we ate that night: Jerk bacon and egg, with brown beans. This cassoulet-type dish was an extraordinary mix of flavors and textures, made into a thick, shiny mess by breaking the egg yolk. The sweetness of the brown beans tempered the fire of the bacon, which was thick and firm. That blew us away, and we were excited to try the fried chicken and mac and cheese next. These courses took forever to get, and they were almost worth the wait. The fried chicken was good, but not the best I have had by a long shot. While there were elements of Samuelsson’s fried chicken that could be called “original” there is simply too much amazing friend chicken out there to make me crave this dish. The mac and cheese was rich and gooey, but almost to a fault; there was only so much that I could choke down without fear of getting ill on my 111 block journey home down Fifth Avenue.
We actually gave up on dessert due to the disappearing waiter, and decided to disappear downstairs into the lounge. I was expecting a smoky, jazzy environment with sexy beats and stolen glances, but when we went down for a drink the lights were on full force and I am assuming the live music hadn’t started yet. You are able to eat down there as well, just an FYI. My girlfriend made a night of it at the Red Rooster by scooping up a 10pm reservation and then heading downstairs for late night fun on a weekend. I would definitely return again to try that plan, but on my first visit, I was too full, of food and hype, to continue the party. Red Rooster is definitely worth checking out, if nothing else to see what everyone is crowing about.