Sunday, January 9, 2011

Red Rooster: The crown jewel of a New Harlem Renaissance

Story and photos by Dwight Casimere

New York--- The sultry sounds of Miles Davis’s trumpet envelope the room as you enter the sweeping curved, copper-topped bar immediately to the right of the entrance to Red Rooster Harlem, the long-awaited restaurant/brainchild of celebrity chef and Harlem resident Marcus Samuelsson. Expectations are high, because it resurrects the name of a Harlem legend; the famed Red Rooster restaurant, which was the home-away-from home for the celebrated and power elite of the Harlem Renaissance of the last century.

On the far wall is a virtual floor to ceiling Wall of Respect with antique LP jackets bearing the names of Davis, Nina Simone, Billy Holiday and the many other jazz legends whose names are synonymous with Harlem’s illustrious past. On the shelves are signed, first edition copies of books penned by the guiding lights of the Harlem Renaissance, who were also the habitués of the original Red Rooster; James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and Langston Hughes.

Its “Friends and Family Night,” a prelude to the pre-Christmas Holiday Grand Opening of the new restaurant. About 120 of Marcus Samuelsson’s best friends and supporters, investors, local celebrities and community leaders and the legion of fans and friends he’s collected over the years turned out, wearing their finest. It has the feeling of an opening night at the theatre, complete with anticipation, accompanied by butterflies in the stomach. The subtle pop of a champagne cork is the grace note that makes it official.

As hors d’ oeuvres are passed, Executive Chef Andrea Bergquist can be seen in the open-plan kitchen at the rear of the restaurant, pumping out huge serving platters of appetizers, consisting of pickled beets on cucumber slices and prosciutto wrapped around a filling of dates and cream cheese.

Samuelsson sweeps into the room, hatless, in spite of the chilly night air, his neck wrapped tightly in his customary fashionable scarf. After circulating the room, receiving congratulatory backslaps and hand shakes, hugs and kisses, he pauses briefly to pose for a few cell phone camera shots. Noticing that the kitchen is under pressure from the sudden arrival of so many hungry guests at the same time, he exits the grasp of an admirer and quickly announces, “we’ll have time for picture-taking later. I have to get back to the kitchen!”

Things quickly move into high gear as Samuelsson takes the helm, leading his crack kitchen staff like a symphonic conductor.

Dinner service is about to begin. Guests are seated at two long communal tables near the kitchen and at tables scattered about the 100-seat dining room. After first name introductions and a round of drinks, the noise level in the room quickly begins to escalate with the hum of conversation and the din of pots and pans in the kitchen. Someone shouts ‘Opah!’ as a tray full of wine glasses is knocked to the floor. In a way, the mishap is an icebreaker that dispels the opening night jitters. There’s a brief pause to acknowledge the minor distraction and the party gets back into full swing.

Just a few years ago, the thought of a major restaurant opened by a celebrity chef in Harlem would have been a pipe dream. But, Harlem has undergone a dramatic transformation over the past few years. It began quietly a few decades ago when the first wave of gentrification brought about the renovation and restoration of the many huge brownstones that line its wide boulevards.

The names of its historic residents, Duke Ellington, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell, who used the original Red Rooster as his informal office when it was located across the street from Abyssinian Church, once pastured by his father, Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., where he often delivered firebrand speeches from the pulpit, now serve as the names of its streets and parkways. Ironically, Abyssinian was founded by a group of African American and Ethiopian sea merchants who lived in New York and who tired of the segregationist policies of First Baptist Church in lower Manhattan. The name of the church was inspired by the ancient name of the nation from which the Ethiopian merchants had come. Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia and, like the merchants before him, came to New York to seek fame and fortune. To a large extent, he has succeeded and the Red Rooster is his crowning achievement.

New restaurants, theatres, art galleries and clubs have been springing up in Harlem like mushrooms. On any given afternoon, its not uncommon to see groups of foreign tourists and folks from downtown swarming through its streets, searching out historic landmarks and darting in and out of local shops and restaurants in search of local flavor and color.

“Harlem is truly a multi-racial and international community,” Samuelsson said during a quiet moment. ”Harlem is a magnet for the many young, striving African, Caribbean, Latin American and white professionals who now call Harlem home.”

No one better exemplifies the new cultural dynamic and international flavor of Harlem than Samuelsson. The 40-year-old superstar chef was born in Ethiopia. At the age of three, a Swedish couple adopted him and his elder sister after his mother died of tuberculosis. He became interested in cooking because of his maternal Swedish grandmother. After studying at the Culinary Institute in Gothenburg, he apprenticed in Switzerland and Austria before coming to the United States in 1991. He became an apprentice at Restaurant Aquavit and at the age of 24, became its Executive Chef. He also became the youngest ever to receive a three-star restaurant review from the New York Times. In 2003, the James Beard Foundation named him “Best Chef: New York City.” He later served as guest chef for the first State Dinner of the Obama presidency.

The Red Rooster represents a defining moment in his career. It is an expression of his multi-faceted life and wealth of experience. Samuelsson lives in Harlem, just a few blocks from his new restaurant.

One of the signature dishes on the Red Rooster menu is Helga’s Meatballs, with potato and celery mash and Lingonberry, named after his maternal grandmother, an obvious homage to her tutelage. There are other references to his heritage and to the diverse international influences he has encountered over the years.

Every aspect of the restaurant speaks to the multi-faceted nature of the community and the breadth of interests of its owner. The ground floor of the new $2 million Red Rooster has a restaurant, a breakfast cafe, a grocery, a horseshoe-shaped bar and a communal table, all of it covering 3,400 square feet. The 1,800-square-foot basement is a party space that has a speak-easy vibe with jazz, gospel and open-mike music.

Things have moved along quickly since the opening. The restaurant is now open for lunch and the Sunday Gospel Brunch is a sell-out. A Breakfast menu is set to begin any day. Cooking classes and demonstrations are also scheduled for the downstairs space.

While the restaurant specializes in what Samuelsson calls “American comfort food,” his personality is evident throughout the menu. The “Mash,” which is served as a side with several menu items, is a combination of mashed potato-and-celery.

Collard greens and sweet potatoes get a dusting of cumin or garam masala, a popular combination of Indian spices, reflecting the chef’s international flair.

“Yardbird Chicken,” the most popular item on the menu, is Samuelsson’s own take on that soul-food staple, fried chicken. Here at Red Rooster, it is first marinated in an exotic blend of spices, then coated with corn flakes to give it that desirable ‘crunch.’ It is then baked, rather than fried, an obvious nod to health-conscious cooking, and served alongside a choice of hot sauce made with crushed red peppers and cumin and a tin shaker of seductive spices. Samuelsson refused to divulge the recipe.

The other menu items display a similar originality with basic comfort food items. Mac & Cheese and Greens are morphed into a combo of Mac & Greens. Liver is also served as a combination in a duck- and chicken-liver ganache seasoned with garam masala, cardamom, ginger and a port-wine reduction. Flank steak is served with oxtail.

Gravlaks with fennel is also a nod to his Swedish upbringing, and Chicken & Egg, is a spicy dish from his native Ethiopia.

There are also ‘down home’ favorites that let you know that you’re in Harlem, USA. There are Crab Cakes and Dirty Rice & Shrimp, straight from the Bayou, Shrimp & Red Grits, Red Snapper and All American favorites like Braised Oxtail, but here, they are served with Plantain, a Caribbean staple as a side dish. The aforementioned Mac & Greens combines two Southern American favorites in a surprisingly eloquent dish, that amps up the flavor quotient with a hefty blend of New York Cheddar, Gouda and Comte cheeses.

The Latin influence is also evident in Harlem. Not only is there a vibrant Latino population, many of the city’s best chefs and line-cooks are of Latin descent. Corn Tacos & Tostadas, composed of Yellowtail & Salmon Ceviche with Avocado is an enticingly flavorful combination that marries the crunchiness of the house made Taco with the velvety texture of the fish. The refreshing tang of the marinated fish is framed perfectly by the earthy whole-grain flavor of the taco. I had this appetizer with a glass of South African Sauvignon Blanc. It was a perfect flavor combination.

Samuelsson makes no bones about his dedication to preserving the legacy of Harlem. “For any person of color, no matter where you come from, Harlem has a special meaning.

In many ways, he sees a major part of his mission at the restaurant as serving as an economic and social engine for the resurgence of the community. “We’re very much into promoting economic development by hiring local residents and using local businesses as suppliers. We’re also striving to educate the public about the importance of local food purveyors and the concept of defining the link from the farm to the table.”

In every way, local artisans and suppliers and minority-owned businesses have been woven into the restaurant’s business model. The artwork displayed on the walls is the work of local artists. Desserts served on Friends and Family night were provided by Tonnie’s Minis, a local bakery owned by an African American woman who is a Harlem resident, which is located just down the street from the restaurant. (The Red Velvet Cake was killer, by the way!)

Even the wine list, with its tantalizing selection of fruit-forward offerings, that span the globe from California to South Africa, was curated by a renowned African American wine expert, Brian Duncan, who is the owner of Bin 36 wine bar and restaurant in Chicago and, recently, creator of his own Bin 36 wine label.

Personal wine favorites on the compact list include Vino Espumante Brut, Novecento NV from Argentina, which is a lovely sparkling wine with a bright, straw color, a lovely peach and grapefruit nose that goes great with light hors d’ oeuvres and appetizers.

The previously mentioned Uva Mira 2008 Sauvignon Blanc from South Africa made another cameo appearance for the main course. It was absolutely great alongside the signature Yardbird Chicken. The real standout of the evening was Brooks Pinot Noir, 2009 from France that paired perfectly with the Uptown Steak Frites, a Red Rooster spin on classic Bistro Steak Frites. It features a 10 oz Prime Aged New York Strip, cooked to just the right temperature, with Truffle Bearnaise and the most perfectly cooked frites this side of the Moulin Rouge. This is the most outstanding dish on the menu.

The prices at Red Rooster are also quite reasonable and portions are large and shareable.

“Dining has always been a focal point here in Harlem,” he continued. “And we also have such wonderful neighbors. We’re bookended by Sylvia’s, which is a Soul Food legend and Chez Lucienne, a French/American Bistro and just a block or so away from the Lenox Lounge, a famous jazz club that dates from the ‘30s and, of course, the Apollo Theatre, which is just around the corner.” The previous night, Sir Paul McCartney hosted a private dinner at the restaurant for guests such as the Rolling Stone’s Keith Richards and comedian Chris Rock, following his celebrity-packed Sirius XM concert at the Apollo, his first-ever appearance at that venerable musical institution.

“Friends and family is our way of saying thanks to all of the people close to us and here in the community who have been supportive of us,” Samuelsson said in the aftermath of the whirlwind evening. “Its also a way for us to fine-tune what we are doing in advance of the opening. We’ll take a day to retool and replenish ourselves and then throw our doors open to the public.

“I love the original Red Rooster. It’s such a part of the history of Harlem and its cultural life. Our motto here is that we are cooking from the soul without being soul food. I hope that, over time, we will make our own distinct contribution and represent a contemporary version of the new Harlem that will bring the past, present and future together.”

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