Harlem's Globe Trotter
Bryan Miller - May 2011
From Swedish meatballs to fried chicken, Marcus Samuelsson is spanning the world’s cuisines while his lively new restaurant, fast becoming a neighborhood mainstay, embraces a multi-culti crowd.
Marcus Samuelsson, wearing a stylish denim chef’s jacket and the wide-eyed expression of an inventor whose widget has sprung to life, takes in the scene at his new “dream” project—Red Rooster Harlem, a restaurant and jazz club in the heart of New York City’s gentrifying Harlem.
“I’m so invested in this place in so many ways,” Samuelsson says of his recently opened creation. “As an urban statement, a social statement, a racial statement, a political statement, as well as a food statement.”
You don’t have to be a sociologist to recognize that some of his aspirations have begun to percolate. On a glacial Friday evening in February, Red Rooster’s bar was jamming with a diverse and bibulous assemblage—young and old; dolled up and dressed down; African-Americans, whites, Asians, Latinos, even Europeans—all of whom have taken up residence in Harlem over the past decade. Judging from casual interviews, most of the patrons were from greater Harlem—some on their third or fourth visits—and there were a good number of curiosity seekers from downtown. (Red Rooster Harlem has received more press than an Umbrian olive.)
A bartender sporting a severe Mohawk churned out faux historic Harlem cocktails like the The Apollo (Tanqueray gin, egg white foam, and sage) and The Lenox (cocoa/vanilla-infused Bourbon, tawny Port, rhubarb, and maraschino liqueur). Verisimilitude notwithstanding, these eccentric concoctions were certainly effective social lubricants. Everyone seemed to be comparing their choices with strangers, even sharing sips. (You don’t see much of that downtown.) Through much of the last century Harlem nightclubs were known for their local drinks. Curiously, many had Caribbean themes, like The Harlem Mugger (including Tequila, vodka, and fruit juice) and The Harlem (based on gin and pineapple juice). Some can still be found at local night spots like the 75 year old Lenox Lounge on Malcolm X Boulevard and PJ’s Cocktail Lounge on Seventh Avenue (Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard).
An African-American couple in their thirties parked at one of the elevated tables on one side of the cafe room nibbling on plates of Swedish meatballs and grilled shrimp with dirty rice. “This is our first time here, and we expected a nice steak and fried chicken joint,” remarked Velma Montgomery, who lives just blocks away on nearby 129th Street. “Baby, it’s so nice to have something different up here!”
In the event they get a hankering for soul food, they need only stroll one block north from Red Rooster Harlem to Sylvia’s, a revered local eatery that now hosts busloads of Harlem tourists.
The $3 million, 5,000-square-foot Red Rooster Harlem (including the basement nightclub), which opened in December of last year on Lenox Avenue near bustling 125th Street, is a homage to its namesake, a jazz club and speakeasy on 138th Street and Seventh Avenue from the turn of the century until about 1980. Dubbed the Stork Club of Harlem, the original Red Rooster was a haunt for local musicians, writers, and society swells. Jean Claude Baker, the adopted son of chanteuse Josephine Baker and owner of Chez Josephine on West 42nd Street, as well as a scholar of Harlem popular culture, remembers visiting the club in the early 1970s.
“It wasn’t a pretentious place, and it was always filled with show business people and writers like Josephine, Ethel Waters, and James Baldwin,” he recalls. The current clientele ranges from politicos like mayor Bloomberg and former mayor David Dinkins to media types like Charlie Rose and filmmaker Albert Maysles to fellow chefs like Daniel Boulud, Eric Ripert, and Bill Telepan.
On March 29, Samuelsson hosted President Obama at Red Rooster Harlem for a Democratic National Committee fund-raiser. The $30,800 a head, six-table event raised $1.5 million for the DNC. About 50 people were in attendance. Obama is rumored to have particularly enjoyed the cornbread and tacos, which were served before the dinner. “I am proud to host Mr. Obama at Red Rooster. It means a lot to bring the conversation to Harlem, and I wish him the best as his campaign continues,” wrote Samuelsson on his website.
The design theme of Red Rooster Harlem dishes out the history of the neighborhood in subtle, tasty portions; indeed, many of the restaurant’s African-American evocations are so understated that the average diner likely misses them.
“This bar,” explained Derek Fleming, the business development director of Samuelsson’s restaurant company, Marcus Samuelsson Group, “has all kinds of African references that we have tried to create with as much authenticity as possible.” Shaped like a wavy horseshoe, the bar is meant to mimic the contours of traditional African woven baskets.
“And we tried to replicate the old-style Harlem restaurants by putting a counter in the center where people can drop in for a quick bite or late meal and meet others.” The sides are embellished with overlapping bands of mahogany and oak, similarly echoing African handicrafts. So, too, does the two-toned tile floor, arranged in chevron patterns. Most of the wood in the restaurants, including the tables in the bar, is reclaimed from old Harlem brownstones.
The 75 seat dining room, with its neighborly tables, butterscotch leather banquettes, and open kitchen is loud on peak nights (every night). Walls are bordered with blackboard-style sketches and culinary jottings from Samuelsson’s notebooks. As a measure of his determination to reach out to the community, he hired 70 staff members from the neighborhood and a handful of graduates from the nonprofit organization C-CAP (Careers through Culinary Arts Program), which works with public schools across the country to prepare disadvantaged students for careers in the restaurant and hospitality industry. The restaurant’s executive chef is Andrea Bergquist, formerly of Manhattan’s recently shuttered Tabla, Gramercy Tavern, and Merkato 55, a short-lived African-themed spot in the meatpacking district where Samuelsson was a consultant. Red Rooster Harlem’s menu could be called homey American, or Southern, jazzed up with playful fillips from Samuelsson’s peripatetic culinary career: spinach and crab soup with coconut milk, blackened catfish with black-eyed peas, macaroni and cheese (made with French Comté, Gouda, and cheddar cheeses), and fried yard bird with mace gravy. On the bottom of the menu is a most un-Harlemy interloper: spiced duck liver pudding with duck pastrami, almonds, and pears. Prices are moderate, with dinner appetizers in the $9 to $15 range, main courses $9 to $15.
Don’t call this menu comfort food, requests the chef. “I don’t use the term comfort food—I want to offer “the spirit of comfort,” Samuelsson maintains. “Comfort is everything we do here. Food is only one part. If you have the spirit of comfort, and you come to it honestly, it doesn’t matter what you serve.”
The scene at Red Rooster redux is emblematic of the cultural transformation that has swept through Harlem in the past two decades—changes other restaurateurs will surely exploit. Having been overwhelmingly African-American for many decades, by the year 2008, in the area called central Harlem (north of 110th Street between Fifth and St. Nicholas Avenues), blacks represented about half of the population. At the same time, the Latino presence has soared. Caucasian families are streaming northward, too, growing from 2 percent a decade ago to approximately 10 percent today. Most of this action remains below 125th Street but is steadily moving north.
As the area continues to evolve—and with it more downtown-style restaurants—the overriding question is “Will Harlem remain Harlem as we know it?”
“I don’t see any reason why not,” asserts Joseph Tahl, of Tahl Propp Equities, one of the larger residential developers in Harlem. “The culture is too strong up here, going back to the early 20th century. Although it will be more diverse culturally and economically.” Tahl counters the popular perception that restaurants like Red Rooster Harlem are major catalysts for neighborhood revitalization.
The dazzling Samuelsson story is well-known in culinary circles: Born in Ethiopia, he was adopted as a small child by a Swedish couple and raised in Sweden, where he acquired a love for food. Having apprenticed in the United States and in Europe, he eventually found himself chef of the multi-starred, ultra stylish Swedish restaurant Aquavit in Manhattan (he remains part owner). Since then he has consulted, opened a restaurant in Minneapolis (now closed), and runs a hospitality and food group with projects in New York City, Chicago, East Hampton, and Stockholm. Many recognize him as last year’s winner of the TV show Top Chef Masters. Along the way, Samuelsson, 40, has become quite the media fashion plate, featured in glossy ads for a variety of luxury products.
For all of its newfound celebrity, Red Rooster Harlem is not the first downtown-style restaurant to throw roots in the neighborhood—or even on the block. Next door is an attractive two year old French bistro called Chez Lucienne. In contrast to media-drenched Red Rooster Harlem, the bistro opened quietly in 2008, the creation of chef Matthew Tivy, who has worked in some of the finest kitchens in America, and partner Alain Chevreux (they also own Café du Soleil on Manhattan’s far Upper West Side).
Lured by rents that can be as much as 30 percent cheaper than on the Upper West Side and a belief that the area was ready for authentic French country fare, they have made a go of it. “Harlem didn’t need another ribs or fried chicken place, so we thought this would be a good idea,” Tivy reasons. “Besides, there are a lot of French people up here; the French have always been attracted to Harlem and its history of clubs and music.”
It’s shortly before 6 p.m. on a late winter Thursday and Red Rooster Harlem is revving up for another high-octane evening. A tall attractive woman draped in black—the official welcome wagon—is poised near the door; lights are tweaked, jazz pumped up; in the busy open kitchen Samuelsson tutors two of his (very) young charges, neither more than three months into his professional career.
Minutes later Samuelsson returns. “You’ll see tonight, when the place is full,” he ventures, “how the scene unfolds like a story, a story full of history—and I get to be the story teller.”