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Even the most gifted, virtuoso cooks endure periods of apprenticeship and youthful uncertainty before being recognized as truly great. But for Marcus Samuelsson, this coming-of-age tale seems to be unspooling in reverse. The Ethiopian-born chef, who learned to cook from his adoptive Swedish grandmother, emerged on the culinary stage more or less fully formed as the award-winning chef at the Scandinavian restaurant Aquavit at the precocious age of 24. Since then he’s dabbled in numerous projects, with varying degrees of success. He’s experimented with Japanese cooking (at the doomed Riingo) and African fusion (at the doomed Merkato 55). He’s starred on TV shows (he won Top Chef Masters last year) and traveled the globe writing cookbooks. But as Samuelsson hops restlessly from one adventure to the next, there’s a sense that this hypertalented cook is still trying to translate his early success into a lasting culinary voice and style.
He may have found it, finally, at his long-delayed, eagerly awaited new restaurant, Red Rooster Harlem, which opened about a month ago down the block from Sylvia’s on Lenox Avenue off 125th Street. This is Samuelsson’s first venture into neighborhood dining (he lives in Harlem), and, tellingly, also the first restaurant he’s operated separately from his partners at Aquavit. The menu is filled with home-cooked favorites from Stockholm (gravlax, Swedish meatballs) and Harlem (mac and cheese, fried chicken, oxtail stew), and the elegantly appointed room has been designed with comfort in mind. The walls are decorated with tastefully curated art pieces (many by Harlem artists) and assorted neighborhood artifacts (the restaurant is named for a famous Harlem speakeasy). A bountiful gospel brunch is served on Sundays, and a stout Red Rooster burger is available at lunch. And if you want a cup of Scandinavian mulled wine to warm you up on a snowy winter’s evening, you can get that too.“It’s almost too damn cheerful in here,” said one of my grumpy downtown guests as we surveyed the room, which was filled, on this particular snowy evening, with neighborhood families dining with their children, assorted local luminaries (Al Sharpton had stopped in the night before), and parties of boisterous European tourists sampling dense slices of cornbread spooned with spicy tomato jam, and Samuelsson’s weirdly sweet, dill-flavored version of a pulled-pork sandwich. The former dish is served in the open-faced smørrebrød, Scandinavian style, on slices of thick buttered toast, and we enjoyed it as a snack, along with bowls of pickled carrots, radishes, and okra, half a dozen Long Island oysters (dressed with a ginger mignonette), and a helping of warm, savory Jamaican beef-patty pastries served with little pots of salsa verde for dipping.
In general, the simplest of Samuelsson’s down-home recipes work best. Nobody at my table had anything very good to say about an Aquavit-like creation called “spiced duck-liver pudding.” It was followed by the house-cured gravlax (decked with fennel and pleasantly smooth) and a pair of satisfyingly fat lump-blue-crab cakes dressed with spoonfuls of spicy fresh-whipped mayonnaise. The enticing-sounding “hearth-baked” macaroni and cheese (made with a mix of Gouda and Comté) turned out to be viscous and bland, so if you’re in the mood for a rib-sticking dish, try the shrimp and red grits instead, which Samuelsson spices with chile and paprika and crowns with a delicately poached egg.
My meat-obsessed friend turned up his nose at the undercharred, oversauced $32 “uptown” steak-frites (“This is how a Swede would cook steak,” he said), but gave two vigorous thumbs up to Samuelsson’s signature Helga’s Meatballs and to a sturdy helping of braised oxtails, which the kitchen simmers to a pleasing softness in flagons of stout. The best seafood dish I sampled was the tender, almost Dover-sole-quality rendition of blackened catfish, but if you prefer to choose between the salmon and the red snapper, have the former, which is set in a sweet apple broth, over the latter, which is soupy and bland. The most satisfying dish of all, however, is the “fried yard bird” fried chicken, which is soaked in buttermilk, seized in a crispy, almost candylike crust, and served, in classic neighborhood style, with spicy collard greens, mace gravy, and can of spicy “shake” seasoning on the side.
Red Rooster Harlem is a big-city dining destination right now (“I’m afraid the wait for a table is three weeks,” I was told over the phone), but Samuelsson clearly knows that in the long run, his new enterprise will only go as far as the neighborhood takes it. Breakfast will be served soon, but in the meantime you can get a decent sweet-potato hash at brunch, as well as stacks of fat, hubcap-size waffles with pecans and chocolate. The dinnertime desserts include a smooth flan made with condensed milk, rich sweet-potato doughnuts, and elegant wheels of bread pudding spiced with apricots and black currants. But the thing I couldn’t get off my mind was the apple pie, which is baked with a hint of Cheddar in the crust, served in Gulliver-size wedges, and designed, like lots of things at this elegant neighborhood restaurant, to exude the comforts of home.
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