Harlem (East): Red Rooster (American/Swedish/Soul Food)

Red Rooster | Winter 2013

Red Rooster Harlem -- From the inside looking out

After many times walking by the restaurant since its opening in 2010, I finally went in.  On Saturday night, The Traveler and I decided to see what all the buzz had been about.  Of course, the buzz comes in part from the owner, chef and author Marcus Samuelsson, who many of us remember from his days at Aquavit. Supposedly, Red Rooster had become the place in Harlem to see and be seen.

We couldn’t secure reservations.  I was told by the pleasant woman who answered the telephone that they only took a limited number of reservations; I’d have to wait to be seated when I arrived.  Fair enough.

I admit, I was a little cautious about the visit. In scanning tweets using #RedRoosterHarlem, I’d discovered a very blunt statement to avoid the place.  At issue was the (over) use of salt. Hm. Not my favorite. As I remarked to the individual who’d provided their candid feedback, in a community rife with hypertension, it was irresponsible (if true) to further contribute to the ails.  Well, we’d see, wouldn’t we?

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Ambiance:  It was one of those nights when the air was crisp and cold.  Before we’d even make it to the doors of the restaurant, it had begun to snow.  When we stepped in, immediately to the right (in a tiny area they call “The Nook”) was the DJ, who I have affectionately dubbed “Asian Station” (please no hate mail). That cat spun the most amazing music — a little bit of soul, a little bit of funk — pretty much from the late 70s to the mid-80’s, which made the over an hour wait (yes, over an hour) bearable in what quickly became a very overcrowded scene.  No kidding, Asian Station was amazing, as evident from my tweet…I’d actually return just to sit at the bar and listen to him spin beats.  (I was crushing hard on him by the time I left — just sayin’.)


As for the crowd, it was mature — no teens and 20-somethings, the bar area at the front of the restaurant was filled with a mix of “regulars” — Harlemites, as well as downtowners coming uptown, borough hoppers (that would be us) and tourists.  People were pretty much on the “grown and sexy” and “casually cool” side.  There were a few “O.G.s”.  (If you don’t know what that means, please phone a friend or consult the urban dictionary.)  Communal tables seem to be the thing at Red Rooster.  Not that that’s a bad thing, but if you want to have a quiet moment in a secluded area with your significant other, this is not the place.

Rating:  Lots of finger snaps…and a strong 8 1/2 out of 10.

The Food:  We ordered two appetizers, one entrée each and shared a dessert, which all came quickly.  It appeared that the kitchen was staffed well and ran like a well-oiled machine.  (The open kitchen is located at the back of the restaurant.)


Red Rooster Harlem - Green Salad

Market Green Salad:  Simple yet delicious.  We’d already begun chowing down when I remembered we’d forgotten to take a photograph, so please forgive the sparseness.  It was a heaping plate of salad.  The goat cheese was soft and meshed well with the other ingredients.  I’m not a fan of beets, but I didn’t even think about them while eating it. It was that good.

Rating:  9 out of 10

Red Rooster Harlem - Dirty Rice and Shrimp

Dirty Rice and Shrimp:  For an appetizer, this was an exceptionally good portion.  It was presented to us in what I believe was a cast iron dish.  Four large shrimp were included, and the rice (basmati) was firm.  (For anyone who may prefer fluffy rice, this may not be the dish of choice.  Just a FYI.)  That’s the good.  Here’s the bad:  I’m not sure what happened, but at my second to last mouthful, I either ate a piece of pepper and swallowed it or I bit into pepper seeds, chewed on them and swallowed.  Whatever happened — even as a lover of spicy food — I was completely unprepared for the absolute horror. I almost could not catch my breath as air just could not get through my throat and into my lungs — and I mean that with no let’s-make-this-more-dramatic-than-it-really-was. As someone with asthma, I was gasping slightly to the point of gulping mouthfuls of water, which did absolutely nothing to soothe the left side of my mouth, including my throat from the unpleasantness.  I was one step away from screaming for the waiter in the midst of this packed room (we were seated near the bar area) to grab honey or sugar from the kitchen.  (Note: I did not complain — and I should have. I didn’t wish to cause a “scene” and spoil what was to be a special night out with my cousin for our birthdays.  This was probably one of only a few times I silenced my voice but if I ever return and something like this occurs, trust me, the entire restaurant will know.)  I continued to gulp water for several minutes until finally it began to subside. I was horrified.  A huge fail.  If an ingredient such as pepper, whole or in part, is an ingredient, shouldn’t this be on the menu?  There was a moment as I was gasping that I thought I was glad my inhaler was in my purse because I might actually need it on a night when I wouldn’t expect that I would, and the last thing I wanted on this snowy night was to end up being rushed to the emergency room. Un-freaking-believable.

Rating: This began as an 8, but quickly fell to a 3 out of 10.


Red Rooster Harlem - Fish and Grits

Fish and Grits:  The grits — creamy and melted in your mouth. It was submerged (as you can clearly see) in a plate of gravy, but the gravy was quite tasty, so I didn’t mind.  The fish, blackened catfish, was hearty.  But there was too much salt used in the seasoning used.  Now, I’d been warned about salt, as I’d mentioned earlier, but until this dish — actually, until tasting the blackened area of the fish — the dishes were not salty.  It wasn’t unpleasant, but it certainly was obvious. I almost wish they’d re-do the seasoning mixture because other than the blackened area, the dish was delicious.

Rating:  7 out of 10

Red Rooster Harlem - Fried Yard Bird

Fried Yard Bird:  Basically, fried chicken accompanied by mashed potatoes.  Since I’m not an eater of meat, I can’t provide feedback on this dish. I did taste a tiny piece of the chicken from The Traveler, but it isn’t much to make an assessment, and really I have such a disdain for things other than those from the sea or grown from the soil.  However, based on what was left of the poor bird after my cousin was through with it, I’d say it would probably be a strong 8 on the rating scale.


Red Rooster Harlem - Warm Apple Crisp

Warm Apple Crisp:  This we shared.  Actually, if you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen this…


After he regained his composure, I guess he was convinced that after what we’d just eaten, we could actually share a dessert.  It’s not as if we weren’t full, if not close to it already.

This was light and flavorful. Really, really lovely.  What I appreciated the most was it was not baked in a crust like an apple pie, so it was void of all that flour.  I didn’t miss it.  The apples were plump, not mushy and there were rich spices included. (Note: This was not spicy as in “hot”.)  Very nicely done.  The dinner ended on a high note.

Rating:  9 1/2 out of 10  (I actually wish that you could have a choice of ice creams.  Instead of vanilla, I could have had rum and raisin — like a really richly tasting brand, not artificially flavored.)

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Overall, Red Rooster garners an 8 out of 10 for the full experience.  The one absolutely horrendous and unfortunate let down was the Shrimp and Dirty Rice appetizer pepper episode. Although the blackened catfish entrée was nicely done, it was spoiled by the salt used in the seasonings for the blackened area.  Thankfully, the rest of the fish was firm and delicious and so was the gravy and oh, so creamy grits.

P.S.  We ordered from the specialty cocktails menu.  The Traveler had the “Rooster Punch” and I had the “Uptown Sour”.  Actually, The Traveler had more than one but I was too full from all the water I’d inhaled during the appetizer pepper episode that having another spirited beverage was not in the cards.

Red Rooster Harlem - Rooster Punch

Red Rooster Harlem - Uptown Sour

P.P.S.  The “look” of the restaurant was in keeping with the flavor of the neighborhood. I didn’t mind the communal tables. I loved the decorative touches throughout the space.  It’s like Chef Samuelsson brought little touches of Harlem inside.  It was very eclectic.

Red Rooster Harlem - A "Welcome to Harlem..." sign on a tray next to a Langston Hughes book

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“Did You Know…”:  There’s a bit of a hidden gem downstairs called “Ginny’s Supper Club“?  For a bit of Gospel on a Sunday, and other types of entertainment from talented individuals during the week, check it out.  And yes, you can order food and eat while you’re being entertained.


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