310 Lenox Avenue between 125th and 126th Streets
$86 for three, without drinks, with tip
I’m very familiar with the Harlem Sunday brunch crowd. I’ve biked enough past the Baptist churches on Adam Clayton and Lenox Avenues to know that after service, large crowds gather at the nearby bakery or join the street barbecue line if it’s warm out. What I didn’t expect to see at Red Rooster was a colorful one–and I liked it. Seven years living in Harlem, I’ve witnessed the neighborhood change: beautiful brownstones getting gutted out and renovated, new apartments higher than six floors getting built in less than two years, Starbucks opening to serve $5 coffees. I’ve taken advantage of the gentrification, as most of you know, buying into one of the developments and enjoying decent brews with my bike safely chained outside the bar. I’ve slowly tried the handful of restaurants that have popped up, but businesses have shared one thread that still need a vast improvement: the quality of service. Red Rooster is no exception.
We walked in Red Rooster and joined the crowd at the bar while two people sang gospel songs. The waiting time was half an hour to forty minutes, so we felt lucky that we got bar seats. Getting bloody marys poured out of a plastic jug and a glass of a simply-mixed mimosa was another story–the two bartenders at the front seemed like they needed another pair of, maybe six more, hands to churn out the drinks being ordered. The bloody marys weren’t even worth waiting for.
The service didn’t change when we were finally shown our table. We must have been visited by at least five different servers, but none of them were quick enough at their feet to get our water glasses and coffee refilled, replace our butter spreaders with steak knives or place the correct plates in front of the person who ordered them. It seemed like the staff was overwhelmed, but there was constant traffic between tables and the service room that I wondered where they were all walking to.
Thankfully, chef Marcus Samuelsson hasn’t lost the talent that he’s honed during all his years at Aquavit. I’m not sure how many of the Top Chef audience even know that he has been around before they started blogging, but for a chef who’s been in the industry before all this foodie fuckfest, I’m also surprised that he’s gone uptown to start anew. He has adopted the Web and he has been parading himself on TV; he is also very visible on the floor chatting up and photographing with business partners and customers. It’s like Marcus Samuelsson Part Two without the need to talk about his familial background. It’s all about the food now, and at Red Rooster, it’s pretty good. The nuggets and toast, or their take on fried chicken and waffles, was well-refined and filling. The fried chicken nuggets were crispy and matched the sweetness of the toast slathered in maple syrup. I wasn’t a big fan of the baked eggs because they were just overcooked, but the mac and cheese using orecchiette with bitter greens made up for them. The five-ounce fillet steak was perfectly cooked and the sweet potato bits were a nice surprise with the French fries. The corn bread is the best I’ve tasted in a while, served with honey butter and tomato jam. The coffee, especially if served black, was so good that I didn’t mind not finishing my weak bloody mary; it will be marketed as Samuelsson’s own come next season. If I can’t get to Egg in Brooklyn often, Red Rooster will just have to do.
Chef Samuelsson’s baby is quite new, so I plan to make a return visit another Sunday to check on the service. I hope it improves and I hope they can deal with the crowd a little bit better next time because the food alone doesn’t carry an entire restaurant, nor can a famous chef.
Southern comfort food in Brooklyn
A 2004 review of Aquavit from the archives
Street barbecue in Harlem