Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Red Rooster: Critics Gone Wild

Of all of the restaurants to open this year, few have garnered more attention than Marcus Samuelsson's Red Rooster. Fresh off his victory on the second season of Bravo TV's Top Chef Masters, Samuelsson managed to turn that momentum into a frenzy of pre-opening hype, leaving both critics and layman alike salivating at the chance to sample his food. Located on Lenox Avenue, just down the street from the iconic Sylvia's, writers immediately dubbed Samuelsson's Red Rooster a shining beacon of hope for this historically vibrant, but economically impoverished section of Harlem. Reservations were booked weeks out in advance, white people were traveling to Harlem, hell had officially frozen over!

Having just dined there myself and leaving not all too impressed, I was "shockingly" surprised to read Sam Sifton's glowing two star review of Red Rooster. Seemingly more interested in describing the restaurant's scene rather than the actual food, I became suspicious of whether this was a review of the actual restaurant, or for what it symbolizes to the community at large-- i.e., a liberal dose of "white guilt." One thing is for sure, Sifton and I certainly didn't see eye-to-eye on Red Rooster's food.

I'll openly admit that I'm a relative stranger to Harlem. Aside from the occasional trip to satisfy an odd craving for soul food, I rarely make it past 125th Street. But based on multiple rave reviews and a surprisingly available reservation via OpenTable, MW and I found ourselves parked outside Harlem's hottest restaurant. Making our way past the crowded bar to the hostess stand, the restaurant certainly seemed alive. But once we were seated, our eyes were focused more on the restaurant's large open kitchen than on our neighbors. The dining room was decorated with family pictures and various heirlooms, reminding you more of someone's home than an actual restaurant. As Sifton noted in his review, service was indeed "raw." Our server, seemed awfully hurried even though the table to our left waited over twenty minutes for their check. Furthermore, bread was never given, water was not refilled and to make matters worse, it was painfully apparent that our server didn't have a solid grasp of the menu, evidenced by her routinely running to the kitchen with nearly every question we raised.

Fortunately, our cocktails almost made us forget about the restaurant's flighty service. Named after the famed Harlem theater, MW's Apollo - Tanqueray Gin, Ginger, Egg White Foam and Sage - was excellent. The gin based cocktail contained spicy pieces of minced ginger hidden in an egg white foam. My Gin & Juice -Hendrick’s Gin, Citrus Juice, Citrus Bitters and Marmalade - struck the perfect balance between the tart bitters and sweet marmalade.

While not extensive, Red Rooster's menu contained several southern staples each with its own unique twist, something not all too surprising given Chef Samuelsson's eclectic background. Keeping in line with the restaurant's theme, we began our meal with an order of the Corn Bread with Honey Butter and Tomato Jam from the snacks portion of the menu. Two thick slabs of moist cornbread arrived, practically begging to be slathered with a delicious honey butter and African-spiced tomato jam, disappearing almost as quickly as it had arrived.

Next, was the special of the night, a Lobster and Asian Pear Salad with Frisée, Arugula, Pistachio Champagne Vinaigrette and a Wasabi Aïoli. Easily the best dish of the night, the salad showcased Chef Samuelsson's mastery of juxtaposing various flavors and textures, with the meaty lobster, sweet pear, peppery arugula, bitter frisée and spicy wasabi aïoli.

But salads alone don't pack restaurants, and in the unfortunate case of Red Rooster, the entrees failed to pick up where the wonderful appetizers left off. Helga’s Meatballs with Mash and Lingonberry was an obvious nod to Samuelsson's Scandinavian upbringing. Paired with a smear of creamy mash potatoes, lingonberry and side of braised red cabbage, the meatballs seemed only marginally better than those found in the Red Hook Ikea cafeteria, but enhanced slightly by the accompanying sides. I suppose we had expected more coming from a chef with Samuelsson's impressive culinary pedigree.

But the award for the meal's biggest disappointment belonged to the much-beloved, Fried Yard Bird with White Mace Gravy, Hot Sauce and Shake. Already the restaurant's signature dish, we found the chicken to be underwhelmingly bland to point that despite presence of the mace gravy, hot sauce and shake, the dish remained significantly devoid of any real flavor. Lauded by many for its moist meat and crispy skin we found neither evident in our particular dish leading us to wonder what all the fuss was about.

Redeeming itself ever-so-slightly was Red Rooster's off-menu side of French Fries with Sweet Potatoes and Truffle Béarnaise. Thin fries and large chunks of sweet potato were expertly prepared, with crisp exteriors, creamy innards, free from any excess grease. Paired with a decedent truffle béarnaise, we devoured these fries faster than either of our entrees.

Hoping the restaurant would redeem itself with dessert, we each ordered something different. Boy were we wrong. Those Sweet Potato Doughnuts with Cinnamon Sugar, Whipped Cream and Lemon Sorbet that Sifton recommended in his review, arrived cold and stiff, hardly adjectives you typically associate with donuts. We ended up skipping the donuts and ate the sorbet.

Only marginally better was the Condensed Milk Flan with Coconut, Caramel and Coconut Sorbet. While more palatable than the stale donuts, we failed to detect the condensed milk and found the flan to be a bit too gelatinous. Again, the best component of the dish was the sorbet.

All in all, I felt Chef Samualsson has himself a solid neighborhood restaurant in Red Rooster. By no means should this be considered an insult, but rather, a more accurate portrayal of where the restaurant is currently. Did we happen to catch Red Rooster on a bad night? Perhaps. But when a high profile food critic puts his reputation on the line by extolling the virtues of a restaurant with as many inconsistencies that we experienced, one can't help but question the validity of the review itself, and ultimately, the reviewer. So while Red Rooster's cultural significance and "energetic" scene may be deserving of effusive praise in Sifton's opinion, based on the food alone, it doesn't warrant a trip to Harlem. Over time, with more polished service and better consistency from the kitchen, Samuelsson's Red Rooster may very well develop into a two star restaurant; but in the meantime, it remains a one star restaurant with two star potential.

Red Rooster
310 Lenox Avenue
New York, NY 10027

(212) 792-9001

To see all the pictures from this meal click HERE.

Red Rooster on Urbanspoon


  1. Just went yesterday myself and also not impressed, although the price was right. Sifton is horrible, can't stand his reviews.

  2. Even president dined here. I'm a bit disappointed to hear it wasn't that great. I was a fan @ Aquavit years ago!