Other than my own partner Chef, I generally don’t have a thing for culinary professionals. I’m not one of those people who developed a fetish for tough, hard-partying, tattooed cooks. But then sweet Marcus Samuelsson came along. I admired his sweet smile from a distance (on any number of promotional posters and TV shows), and acted shy when he graced the dining room years back at Aquavit. A few months back, I finagled an invite to a Kraft-sponsored kids iPad application launch just so I could meet him in person. It was a stretch, but he delivered that should-be-trademarked pearly grin, agreed to give me the recipe for Red Grits, and my Samuelsson crush was just encouraged. So when his latest dining foray Red Rooster opened one neighborhood down and over in Harlem, I couldn’t wait to get in. Unfortunately, I had to. The new cock strutted its stuff and the crowds have been piling up ever since, including a fundraising visit from President Obama. My only hope was a Monday brunch reservation scored a month in advance, which worked out perfectly, really. Chef had the day off, so it was a “day date,” albeit one shared with my cooking infatuation.
For tourists and downtown dwellers, Red Rooster couldn’t be easier to access really—just steps from the 125th street stop on the 2 or 3 trains. In an area of Harlem littered with drug stores, shoe shops, and odors of semi-exotic incense, Red Rooster stands out with its elegant modern design. The curvaceous bar takes center stage upon arrival, and I half wanted to pull up a stool and eat there in order to watch the character show passing the window. But even better that our dining room table was jimmied next to the open-kitchen pass window so that my own Chef could supervise the live kitchen show. We didn’t mind being seated at a table for 6, that was pressed into service as a communal table—after all this was high-end comfort food, meant for sharing and caring. On one side, a stunning blond duo, clearly Swedish, snapped photos of surroundings and asked us what we ordered. The Brits on the other side worked hard to ignore us. The rest of the dining room was teeming with elegant business people—it had the buzz of a midtown-dining venue, less the white banker and media establishment. It felt, well, welcoming to all, really.
And I could say the same thing for the food. Nothing fussy here, even when trying to modernize down home cuisine. The Shrimp & Dirty Rice might have been elegantly plated, but the perfectly grilled shrimp retained those southern flavors that reminded me of New Orleans. The Hearth Baked Mac & Greens fascinated me—the rich cheese in the pasta cut by the tart and vinegar taste of the collard greens. The Fried Chicken Caesar was a miss—although the chicken was perfectly cooked with crispy skin standing in for croutons, the dressing globbed onto the spinach. Better to have gone with the Fried Yard Bird entrée. Similarly, the cocktails felt like they were trying too hard. Served in a martini glass, The Lenox, a cocoa and vanilla infused bourbon concoction, was so strong it threatened to strip away my taste buds. But by the end of the meal, they were soothed by the Warm Apple Pie served with a delicate crust baked with cheddar.
Although disappointed I didn’t see Chef Marcus in the house, I’ll give the boy a break. It was a Monday after all, and he needs some time off. Besides, now I have a reason to come back. After all, crushes are enhanced by the fun of the pursuit, and with Red Rooster, Chef Marcus is doing some successful flirting.