As a Harlemite, the most exciting and heralded restaurant event of the last six months was by far was the opening of Red Rooster. A black celebrity chef opening a soul food restaurant in Harlem! Nevermind that he’s Swedish. The tittering commenced. Aunties and church members from across the country called and asked, “Have you been to that Marcus Samuels restaurant yet?” (They always butcher his last name.) And before Red Rooster, I always had to reply, “No, unfortunately I can’t afford to go to Aquavit.”
But Red Rooster is a delight of a place, another showpiece in Harlem’s popping restaurant scene. The decor is welcoming, there’s always a vibrant scene of people waiting, eating, drinking, mingling in the front bar. And the downstairs lounge is never empty Thursday to Saturday, a racially and generationally diverse crowd boogie-ing down to old school jams on the early side, hip hop and dancehall after midnight.
Then there’s the food. Having never sat down to a full meal at one of Mr. Samuelsson’s other venues, I have no basis for comparison. But from years of observing him and following his career, I expected soul food, but with his signature international flavor profiles and his own fine-dining finesse. And I wasn’t disappointed.
I heard a few grumbles from the local color that “well it wasn’t all that” and “it wasn’t enough food” and whatnot… But one must understand: it’s soul food, something that is defined as variably and subjectively as each cook or eater’s tastes. Is it going to taste like your mother’s? Or the favorite neighborhood spot back home that had the bomb [fill-in-the-blank] whatever? NO!!! This is Marcus Samuelsson’s vision, the vision of an Afro-Swede’s interpretation of American soul food. It’s not going to be to “your” taste, or even to a “traditional” taste. It’s to his. You either like it and enjoy it, or you don’t. No shade, but I personally hate both Sylvia’s and Amy Ruth’s food, both heralded as staples of Harlem soul food. Too greasy, not enough thought or spice for my cultured creole tastebuds. But I loved this.
The food and drinks were simply delicious. Yes I had the fried chicken. No, it wasn’t earth shattering and groundbreaking – it was fried chicken and french toast. But expertly made, with a unique flair. Worth a trip uptown, for those daring enough to brave the 2/3 train to 125th.