New York has plenty of great soul food joints. Red Rooster, which hosted a $1.5 million fundraiser for President Barack Obama last week, isn’t one of them. Sorry.
The celebrity chef, Marcus Samuelsson, wants the Rooster, an affordable if uneven Harlem hangout, to be a culinary destination. So he opens the reservations book 30-days out -- just like Thomas Keller at Per Se.
That’s some chutzpah for generic $7 sweet potatoes, gritty mac and cheese and ho-hum oxtails. With customers lining up three deep at the bar, food may not be the point.
Samuelsson was 24 when his Aquavit was not just the city’s best Scandinavian restaurant, but one of its best restaurants, period, earning three stars from the New York Times.
Credit the “Top Chef,” now 40, for making Red Rooster an instant social destination. It means to remind us that scenester Manhattan isn’t limited to the Meatpacking District. Cue Mos Def and Portishead on the sound system. It gets loud. It also gets crowded, and it’s likely Samuelsson’s kitchen staff is overwhelmed by the clamoring from every one of the 120 seats that are never empty long.
On one of my four visits, I spotted the CEO of a small hedge fund, drinking bourbon. That quintessential American spirit is a highlight of the cocktail list. It replaces gin in a Negroni to make for a darker, more complex aperitif; it gets infused with cinnamon in a Manhattan for a spicier riff on the classic.
Then the food comes. Dirty rice ($11) lives up to its name, like spooning a mouthful straight from a box of Zatarain’s. Blackened catfish, no better than a prepackaged supermarket version, arrived with black eyed peas that smelled like dishwater. Jamaican beef patties tasted like microwaved meatloaf; pulled pork had all the flavor of powdered Taco Bell seasoning. I washed it down with a glass of Paul Goerg Champagne ($20) that was flat.
My companion, a citizen of Crown Heights, was mortified by $21 fried chicken. Did the poor bird die a second death under heat lamps? It arrives encased in an impenetrable shell that seemed engineered to prevent anyone from reaching the inedible dry flesh.
Baked lemon chicken was worse, the meat unseasoned and skin soggy as a wet towel. Shredded chicken and liver ($15) was passable after I seasoned it myself.
A place called Red Rooster probably should get poultry right. Especially when easy-sipping, fowl-friendly Rieslings get Montrachet-worthy markups. Wines by the glass (all $20 or less) are served in heavy, inelegant stems. A $70 bottle of J.J. Prum from Germany can be had locally for $23. The asking price here for a $46 Alsatian (Trimbach, Cuvee Frederic Emile) is almost tripled to $130.
Samuelsson has lent his name to Kraft, Chanel, MasterCard, Buick and a set of pots for sale on Amazon.com. They cost $272.
I’d like to know what kind of pans were used to undercook my $32 steak into a cold, rare, sinewy slab, or overcook my snapper into submission -- though it was sitting in an excellent sour tomato broth.
A hint of kaffir lime didn’t hurt the snapper. Samuelsson, Ethiopian-born, Swedish-adopted, Harlem-residing, is a global fusion machine. That’s why he can pull off “smoked” Caesar salad next to a Scandinavian plate of soft meatballs and lingonberries.
Crab cakes, meaty and a bargain at $14, pay sweet homage to Baltimore. Lobster salad ($17) tips a hat to both Japan, with wasabi, and East Africa with berbere. Order it.
At Aquavit, Samuelsson topped oysters with curry mango sorbet. Now he nicely juices up the plump bivalves with ginger mignonette. The kitchen sends out a cloying shot of melon vodka as a palate cleanser. Send it back.
Fill up instead on good grits infused with spicy, smoky chorizo and briny shrimp.
Desserts are good, too; try the cakey doughnuts or apple pie with cheddar. But the right call to end a meal is cornbread. It comes with honey-spiked butter so rich it tastes illegal. Maybe, someday, Samuelsson will get soul food right.
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: Everything’s under $32.
Sound Level: Loud when full, 80-85 decibels.
Date Place: Yes; nice and cozy at the bar (for walk-ins).
Inside Tip: Friday tables book up a month in advance.
Special Feature: Gritty, burnt chickpea dumplings are the token vegetarian entree. Avoid them at all costs.
Will I be back: For uptown cocktails and cornbread.
Red Rooster is at 310 Lenox Avenue, near 125th Street. Information: +1-212-792-9001; http://redroosterharlem.com.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels):
51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse sotto voce. 56 to 60: Speak up, please. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: Heads turn because you’re yelling. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)