The pleasures of the rotisserie are in the glorious transformation of so many fat, golden birds, turning on the spit until their skin is a deep brown, deeper and browner in some places, and the meat is still running with juice. Soon, you’ll eat. First, you watch those chickens spin, your eyes as big as a cartoon dog’s.
There’s no shortage of good rotisserie in New York—from Peruvian and French to Italian—but Streetbird in Harlem has drawn attention because it’s the latest from Marcus Samuelsson, a famous chef born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden, who first made his name at New York’s Aquavit.
His newest restaurant is a casual rotisserie joint that doesn't take reservations, peddling simple, delicious spit-roasted chickens with cornbread and collard greens, and more chicken in sandwiches, salads, and noodle dishes (like the Sho Nuff, a platter of spicy lo mein named after a character in the 1985 martial arts movie set in Harlem, The Last Dragon).
After Samuelsson’s successful run with Scandinavian cooking—at just 24, he got three stars from Ruth Reichl at The New York Times—he traveled through Africa and later opened a restaurant called Merkato 55, where he served Nigerian-style shrimp fritters and Ethiopian berbere-laced lamb tartare in the Meatpacking District. Downtown didn't entirely embrace the sleek, expensive African food, and the restaurant didn’t last long.
At Streetbird, though, one of the tastiest dishes on the menu is called the Swediopian, a tasty portmanteau of the places to which Samuelsson belongs, that is more elegant to eat than it is to say. A big pile of chicken meat, crumbles of fresh cheese, and hard-boiled egg almost covers a sheet of soft, flexible injera, a flatbread made from fermented teff grains. The dish references doro wat, the Ethiopian stew, but it’s light, bright, and leanly composed.
Other dishes at Streetbird aren’t quite as successful. The catfish sandwich is a tough puck of distressingly smelly fish, under a shining layer of melted, re-cooled orange cheese. The wings are nothing special, the kind of battered and fried, faintly neon kind you’d put away at any old sport’s bar. Those lo mein noodles have plenty of peppery flavor, laced with crunchy cabbage and pickled greens, but the noodles themselves are sometimes served so overcooked that they stick together in clumps.
There is excitement at my table over the red velvet waffle and chicken, which is beautiful with rounds of radish and spring onion, and a small cup of bitter mole. It’s undeniably lovely to look at, and the waffle is a delightful shade of hot pink when you tear it open, but the texture of the thing is too soft and squishy, and the effect is overly sweet. Sure, on top there’s expertly fried chicken, boneless and craggy and crisp, but it's dusted in an unnecessary amount of powdered sugar (the necessary amount of powdered sugar on fried chicken is zero, none at all).
Cocktails are inexpensive, but can be watery and sweet, like the dinky plastic tumbler of bourbon-spiked iced tea which tastes like it was ladled from the punch bowl at a middle school dance, near the end of the night, when the ice was very melty. The Sweet Dog dessert, a kind of chocolate-cherry cake with whipped cream, has the delightful look of a Hostess cake, but also tastes like it was just unwrapped, with a lingering artificial flavor.
Like Samuelsson’s other restaurant in Harlem, Red Rooster, the place is consistently packed. The crowd is mostly local, couples, families, groups of twentysomething friends, all casually sharing some rotisserie, greens, and an order or two of French fries, or meeting for a long, boozy brunch on the weekend. A second line forms behind the host, where people queue up for takeout.
In his memoir Yes, Chef, Samuelsson described his move to New York City in the mid 90s—going to see Run-D.M.C. in Queens, and figuring out, slowly, that he might want to trade in his Doc Martens for Timberlands. In many ways, it can seem like the food at Streetbird is completely beside the point: This restaurant is a shrine to Samuelsson’s New York nostalgia.
Beat Street plays on the telly at the bar, the lamps that hang are cages, made from cassette tapes. Mixtape Mondays focus on early hip hop and are “specially curated” by Samuelsson (yes, in some circles, this is also known as making a playlist). Heavily graffitied subway doors slide open to get to the dishwasher station. They're slapped with a sticker: Don’t fall in love. The entry is lined with speakerbox installations—put on the headphones and you can listen to readings about New York City, if you like.
It’s all a bit much, and the intensity of the thematic design can give Streetbird the unfortunate feel of a Harlem-themed cafe in Universal Studios. For a restaurant that is firmly planted on the corner of Frederick Douglass Boulevard, in Harlem, this is strange and unsettling. The chicken's not bad, but Samuelsson’s nostalgia is a bit like all New Yorkers’ nostalgia—sentimental, imprecise, and a little bit exhausting.
Streetbird is at 2149 Frederick Douglass Boulevard (Harlem); +1 (212) 206-2557 or streetbirdnyc.com
Rating: 1/4 Stars (Good)
What to Order: Swediopian ($9.50); Rotisserie chicken ($16) with side of collards and fries; Sho nuff noodles ($9)
Who’s Next to You: Parents visiting their twentysomething kids; date nights; girls’ nights; Harlemites picking up takeout on their way home from work
Soundtrack: John Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things”; Jay Z; Nas; Steel drums at lunchtime