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.


Veggie Omelette, Il Caffe Latte, Harlem

Veggie Omelette + Mimosa, Il Caffe Latte, Harlem

If you can beat the weekend rush (by going super early or super late), Il Caffe Latte is a totally worth it, a great, relatively quiet place to nurse a hangover or catch a nice strong latte.

When I was on a hunt for gumbo ingredients the other day (beef smoked sausage and possibly andouille sausage) in Harlem, I found myself in the C-town on 125th.  While for a long time that grocery was the only one for miles around aside from Fairway and a few exorbitantly priced organic markets… that doesn’t excuse the fact that in general, all C-towns in the city have a faint lingering odor of under-refrigerated meat and dairy products.  I braced myself and ran in, all the way to the back, where I knew the prepackaged Hillshire Farms sausage would be.

Once inside though, I was fascinated by the proliferation of “regular” groceries.  I’d insulated myself in a bubble of organic fresh fruits and veggies and sustainably packaged grains and granolas for so long, the sight of hundreds of boxes of Fruit Loops and other neon cereals startled me.  And then I remembered how much I *loved* Frosted Flakes as a kid, and grabbed a box.

So I quickly found the beef smoked sausage and allowed my eyes to peruse the shelf to see what other odd random “regular” groceries they had.  Hot sausage by the 5 lb box, but something about it was a little too neon red to pique my interest.  Then I found the beef bacon.  I found duck bacon at Fairway once before and it was a delightful experience, so I figured this would be tasty if not delicious.  Good god, was I wrong!

It was like salt cured beef with no smoke flavor…  All grease and stringy mush.  I threw it away.  Couldn’t eat it.

All that said, I would be willing to bet that if I got the beef bacon from Fairway, Whole Foods, or some other fancy organic market, or from a good local source it might be delicious.  No. 7 in Fort Greene taught me well that all prepared meats are NOT created equal!

But those fancy markets never had it.  Because beef bacon is… gauche.

I suffer, so you don’t have to.

Beef Bacon raw, w/packaging

It seemed like a good idea at the time

Beef Bacon in a pan

it turned out a disaster

I’ve been in Harlem in the same apartment for 4.5 years now…  right in the center of all the exciting new places that have recently opened (Bad Horse Pizza, Chocolat, Biergarten, 5 and Diamond), and close as well to the tried and true – and mostly delicious – places that have been here as long as I have or longer (Nectar Winebar, Billie’s Black, Melba’s, 67 Orange, etc.)

But my favorite place to eat in my neighborhood, day or night (because they stay open til 4am – yes, 4am – most nights), is Patisserie des Ambassades.  It’s a French-Senegalese bakery and grill, open 7am to 4am, an experience (like many things in Harlem) and one you can neither rush nor partake in if you’re in any particular hurry.  But everything, and I do mean everything because I’ve had just about everything except certain off the menu traditional dishes that I’ve been lax in ordering, is DELICIOUS.  Mouthwatering, omg-what-spice-is-that, make you wanna slap your mama delicious.  The omelets are divine (cremeuse my favorite) and only served on weekend brunch.  The lamb chops and lamb shank are particularly outstanding if they get good cuts in, and even if not they’re pretty good, and for about $14 you get enough to feed you for at least a meal plus decent leftovers.  The whole grilled tilapia has a tomato-onion relish on it that have tried and failed so many times to recreate.

Bread Counter at Patisserie des Ambassades

Bread Counter at Patisserie des Ambassades

They also have the best bread in Harlem, $2 for a long french loaf.  It usually sells out by dinner time every day.  The vast selection of well-appointed pastries, cheesecakes, tartes, cupcakes, tiramisus, and cake-lets will make you drool.  I’m also discovering a “VIP” prix fixe menu from their website that I’m pretty upset I never knew existed (it’s not handed out in the restaurant).

But most nights when I’m stumbling home from a night of carousing, I get a burger.  I know, tres Americain 🙁 but it’s just so damn good.  It’s a hearty thick patty sliced in half with a fried egg put between the two slices of meat, dressed with ketchup and their homemade spicy mayo, all on a perfect brioche bun.  Lettuce, tomato, and their sinus-searing homemade hot sauce optional.  I usually opt for all three.

Burger from Patisserie des Ambassades, Harlem NYC

Best damn burger in Harlem

Let it be said that I have only finished this entire burger once.  And that was after skipping a meal at some point in the 24 hours prior, possibly due to illness.

I will be revisiting the VIP menu here now that it’s outdoor-seating weather.  Stay tuned!

© 2011 Bon-Manger Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha