310 Lenox Avenue
New York, NY 10027
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.