>> 6/29/15

310 Lenox Avenue
New York, NY 10027
(212) 792-9001

Just a hair north of 125th Street lies Red Rooster, the critically acclaimed, uber popular Harlem hotspot. Harlem's come a long way since I was a kid. It used to be that the only restaurants of note that Harlem was known for was Patsy's and Rao's and let's not kid ourselves, it didn't have a reputation for being the safest place in the world. But lately, it's a whole new bag. Much like the Bowery, next door to where I grew up, gone are the abandoned buildings and stripped cars. New buildings, renovated brownstones, chic restaurants. These are the order of the day. Red Rooster is at the forefront of these new, trendy uptown restaurants. Alas, I regret to end this paragraph with the sad fact that we did not leave our meal itching to return.

I arrived at Red Rooster to find Sparkles already there and waiting. Finally. Someone who arrives to dinner before me. And I was early. We walked in and, because the air conditioning was on the fritz, we were led downstairs to the cooler lower level. The space itself is fantastic. Outdoor sidewalk seating (and look at the facade of the building. It's perfect), a colorful, vibrant front bar, a nice upstairs dining room, and a really great downstairs dining room that felt like it was stolen from a movie out of the jazz age. The music was a little schizophrenic. One minute it was jazz classics, the next it was modern pop. I like consistency. But that was the same case with the food, too. Red Rooster seemed to know what it wanted to look like, and seemed to know what it wanted to present itself as, but it wasn't really sure how to translate that image into taste.

The first thing that Sparkles and I did, after selecting our drinks, was order Cornbread, which was, without hesitation, fantastic. It came with a soft whipped butter - that was like eating a creamy pillow made of heaven - along with an odd tomato chutney that was basically like eating pizza sauce. Is tomato sauce on cornbread a thing? If so, it's news to me and not nearly as good as the butter. Up next, we ordered up some Gravlax, cured salmon that pays a little bit of homage to chef Marcus Samuelsson's Swedish upbringing. Anyway, Sparkles thought that the gravlax was very good. I, on the other hand enjoyed the taste for the first half, but then found the distinctly fishy back-of-the-tongue taste irritating. Like, it was good, but not good enough that I'd order it twice. That was accompanied by an order of the Uncle G's Pastrami, an open faced slider of beef heart pastrami, "red rooster sauce" whatever that is, and sauerkraut. This had the potential to be amazing. Who doesn't love beef heart? But then all of that taste, all of that rich flavor was completely masked and neutered by this massive volume of sauerkraut. It was too much. If they just used half as much, then it could have been great.

Sparkles ordered the Shrimp & Grits as her entree. Cheddar grits, shrimp, piri piri (a kind of chili paste), pork belly, some greens, and "bird funk" whatever that is. This was the best dish of the night, cornbread notwithstanding. The grits were smooth like mashed potatoes and all of the pieces fit together perfectly (although Sparkles dislikes pork belly). If you find yourself eating at Red Rooster one day, order this for your entree. I don't get to eat African food all that often, so when the waitress explained that the Peanut Chicken was based on an African dish, I knew that it was the one for me. Served with coconut spinach, mango braised pearl onions, and taro root, it was very pleasant, but not wowing. The roasted chicken was a little dry, but far from unacceptable. The peanut sauce was very good and very thick. The vegetables seemed out of place and dull though, so the dish felt off. Maybe wild rice with raisins would have hit me in a better way. I was a bit nonplussed.

So. Conclusion. The restaurant space is impressive from the moment you walk in. The staff was very friendly. The service did not lack. Sparkles and I both felt that the cornbread should have been free as part of a post-drink-order bread basket. Being charged $4 felt a little like being nickel-and-dimed. The menu was literally all over the map. Swedish influence here, African influence there, soul food thataway. It needed a center and was instead a hodgepodge. The cocktails, priced for midtown wallets, were just okay. Each dish, while good on its own, never made it to the land of the great. There was nothing where I opened my eyes, looked at Sparkles, and said "This one!" The shrimp & grits was the best, but my eyes weren't bugging out of my head. Finally, while we debated getting dessert just to try one, none of them were ultimately interesting or unique enough to warrant spending the extra money.

In the end, the meal, before tip was $134. That's two drinks, two appetizers, two entrees, and a cornbread.

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>> 6/19/15

29-19 24th Avenue
Astoria, New York 11102
(718) 274-4925

It's hard to believe that the last time I went to Bohemian Hall, it was with Bro five years ago. Bohemian Hall used to be the only reason anyone would go to Queens. At the turn of the last century, dozens of beer gardens like this dotted the landscape of the city as central and eastern Europeans came to the States for work, bringing this part of their culture with them. While beer gardens have had a resurgence here in the past few years (every fall I do an Oktoberfest round-up), this is the last of the originals. Now, Astoria has become the place to live for Millenials who can't afford Manhattan and for whom the Brooklyn brand isn't worth getting mugged over.

I arrived here around 5ish on a Saturday with Mr. Dogz and Doc, and, I regret to say, was immediately a little let down. In my head, the memories of my previous excursions to Bohemian Hall were subdued. Yeah, there were people in their 20s and 30s here, but it seemed more relaxed back then. My memory/fantasy was an orderly, tree-shaded place where folks who wanted to eat Czech food and drink too much before the sun even considered setting could go and chill and talk and talk and chill and talk. This was more like a kegger. On one table stood a guy, plastic cup in hand - (ahem, I repeat... PLASTIC CUP!!!) - screaming out a toast. Hoots and hollers followed. The staff, what few of them there were (very few) wore bright, neon green t-shirts with "staff" written on them like they were working at a spring break cruise out of Cancun. I didn't mind that every table was full. I did mind that when we did find a place to put our drinks down, it was on a table sponsored by Red Bull. Really? Red Bull? I guess Joose was being stingy with the swag on branding day. 

Am I being harsh? Maybe. No. Actually, I'm not. Bohemian Hall is the last original beer garden. It's supposed to be old fashioned. There are plenty of places people can go and drink Jaegerbombs and Coors Light from a red solo. Bohemian Hall should be trumpeting its vintage, because that's the unique thing it brings to the table, instead of becoming some haven for people who just want to woot and drink Jaegerbombs... sigh. Well, I'm glad the kids were having fun. That made me feel nice. Anyway. The food.

Eastern Europe is not known for making the most gourmet dishes in Christendom. I would know. The random collection of my ancestors on one side transitioned from serfdom to a more amiable life of perpetual squalor and on the other side traded fending off Cossacks to fending off Nazis. When you're as poor as dirt and everything in your life is one flush away from being sucked into the grand muck-pit of history, and dinner is your reward for having survived the day, you eat comfort food. And so it is with the dinner here. It was decent, and hearty, and if you think that it's even remotely healthy you should be laughed out of the room. It's the kind of food that's admittedly a little dull, but it also somehow isn't the kind of thing that eating every day would drive you crazy. You can't say that about fois gras or artisinal flatbread or frisee salad. In attempting to eat something somewhat unique, I refused to have the chicken caesar salad wrap or the cheese fries, two items that belong in a sports bar that caters to sorority sisters and the pledges that they refused to admit.

Doc ordered the Potato Pierogies and asked for the Sauerkraut. The pierogies were steamed, an unfortunate, but acceptable flaw given that they were very, very good. Light, smooth, and sweet. If you don't know what a pierogie is, for shame. They're mashed potato inside of a dumpling shell. Some polish spots downtown have a dozen flavors, but potato is the classic. Doc is, unfortunately for her boyfriend Dogz, who has to deal with this disability of hers every day, a vegetarian and, lo and behold, the sauerkraut, which we were told was a vegetarian side dish, has bacon in it! I love it. Vegetarianism in Eastern Europe has a completely different meaning. "Is it more vegetable than meat? Yes? Vegetarian!" I grabbed a bite before she flagged down the neon-green-shirted waiter and got it swapped with the Red Cabbage, which she and Dogz said was fantastic.

Dogz ordered the Classic Beef Ghoulash, beef, roasted until it was white-bread tender, served with Czech dumplings (which looks like white bread) and under a soup of gravy. It's like ordering an edible sponge. I ordered the Svikova, which is almost the exact same dish, except that the gravy was a vegetable gravy instead of a beef gravy. Both were good but not jaw dropping good. They were the kind of food that you could eat in a small inn during a winter storm, in a town you don't know the name of, in a room with almost no heat and poor lighting, while drinking a barrel sized glass of sweet dark beer, next to a fireplace. These were not summer dishes is my point. Truly, I could have both of these again, but I won't remember to, because they are so thoroughly forgettable. That's maybe the essence of comfort food. Perfect for eating over and over again because it made so little impression on you the first time that you didn't commit the experience to memory. You just remember feeling content and warm. 

Nothing was expensive. Beer was $6 and each dish was $13. If nothing else, it would behoove Bohemian Hall to hire more staff. Four people (two waiters, two people to bring the food and collect plates) for what appeared to be about five hundred people isn't enough. 

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