There are restaurants you can only dream of going to - French Laundry, Le Bernardin, Menton - and then there are restaurants you dream of and actually have the privilege of dining in. For me, that restaurant is Red Rooster.
If you've been reading the blog for a while, you know I have a slight obsession with chef Marcus Samuelsson. I was first introduced to him when he was a contestant on Bravo TV's "Top Chef Masters" and then I devoured his memoir "Yes, Chef." I even gave away five signed copies of the book to some very lucky readers.
Currently, Marcus is the owner of Red Rooster in Harlem, so naturally when my sister and fiancé moved there, I insisted we make a reservation.
We made our reservation a month in advance and I was counting down the days. As much as I was looking forward to the food, mostly I hoping to have a Marcus sighting.
The night of our reservation we walked the three blocks from my sister's apartment and there it was, on the corner of Lenox and 125th Street, glowing.
Red Rooster has a large outdoor patio. The night we visited it was a bit chilly to sit outside, but in the summer I'm sure it's a blast.
Inside the door of the restaurant was a red rooster (obviously).
The bar scene was hopping! I couldn't believe how many people were not only seated, but forming a second row of people all the way around the U shaped bar. I love the way they display the liquor on illuminated shelves you can see from both sides.
The dining room was bustling. It's a very open space, with an open kitchen at the back. The rear wall is a giant chalkboard. You know how I love a chalkboard.
We were seated at a table in the center of the dining room. I was expecting it to be very loud, but we didn't have a problem hearing each other at all.
Our waitress brought us the cocktail and food menus and I couldn't help but laugh at some of the drink names like the Obamatini. There was also a drink named after Marcus' book!
My friend decided to get the Yes Chef cocktail, which is topped with berbere. It his book Marcus talks about the importance of this spice in Ethiopian cooking. After a few sips she commented, "This is just delicious. It's mostly savory tasting, with a sweet after note."
I opted for a drink called the Savoy which was vodka, lemon, agave and muddled grapes. It was so strong that I couldn't even drink half. However, the fresh grapes were a lovely and refreshing touch.
With drinks in hand, we were able to focus on the food. I smiled when I saw Marcus' grandmother's meatball recipe made it on to the menu. In the memoir he speaks so warmly about his grandmother and how she is responsible for his love of cooking.
There were five of us at the table and to start we ordered the fried chicken and waffles. When in Rome, right?
Though I didn't partake in tasting this one, the reactions around the table were extreme adoration. One friend said, "This is last meal good." Overall the peanut gallery reported that the chicken was very moist, the greens beneath the chicken were fantastic with just the right kick and the waffle was fresh, soft and ridiculously good. The only complaint was the dipping sauce. Apparently the bourbon maple syrup was way too boozy.
We also sampled the fried green tomatoes (yes, we picked the two fried appetizers on the menu). They came topped with bacon and buttermilk dressing.
With my pieces, I picked off the bacon, but I have to say, the dish needed it. In bites without the bacon it just tasted like it was missing something.
After a great first round of drinks and apps, we were ready for the main event. One friend ordered Helga's meatballs (we basically forced him to) and we couldn't wait to hear his reaction. After a few bites he raved, "What I love is that he really knows how to balance flavors. The meatballs are amazing and very rich, so they are accompanied by the acidic pickled vegetables."
Next to him, another friend ordered the blackened catfish. She said, "Though the dish was very flavorful and the fish was very fresh, I wouldn't order it again. It just didn't wow me."
My sister decided on the tandoori salmon, served over cauliflower and topped with golden raisins. She explained, "From the name of the dish I was expecting Indian flavors, but it didn't taste like that. The fish was very fresh. It was the perfect plate of fall food."
There were plenty of vegetarian choices on the Red Rooster menu, but I couldn't help myself. I had to go for the mac and cheese, or the mac and greens, as it's listed on this menu.
The mac and cheese was nothing short of incredible. It was a huge portion of cavatappi pasta mixed with gouda cheese and greens, then baked to crispy perfection.
It came with a side salad topped with pickled vegetables and a sprinkle of parmesan cheese.
As if we didn't have enough food, we also shared a side of the wild mushrooms. I love mushrooms, but this dish was over powering and tasted very salty.
As our entrees were being cleared one of the managers came over to introduce himself. He was impeccably dressed in a khaki suit with a red bow tie. He had a mega watt smile and shook each and every one of our hands. He asked our names as he went around the table and then genuinely listened to our feedback. I cannot remember the last time I felt that kind of sincere interest from a restaurant manager.
Though we'd already eaten enough for a small army, we of course wanted dessert. We whittled it down to two choices and when we announced our picks to the waitress she said, "Excellent choices. Those are my two favorites."
Our first pick was the chocolate raspberry cheesecake. I was expecting to love this dish, but it wasn't cheesecake at all. It had the flavor and texture of chocolate mousse.
The slice was topped with frozen raspberries which was a fun, unexpected touch. If this had been called raspberry chocolate mousse cake, I probably would have loved it. Sadly, they tricked me and I was left wishing for a dense slice of cheesecake.
Luckily our other pick, the sweet potato doughnuts, knocked it out of the park.
I know what you're thinking, "Sweet potato doughnuts? That sounds so bizarre."
Well, the doughnuts arrived in a silver basket (just like the kind you use in a deep fryer) and was garnished with a side of whipped cream. Each doughnut was coated in the most sinful dusting of sugar.
They were light and sublime when dipped in the whipped cream.
My sister's fiancé wasn't able to join us at dinner, so we ordered some food for him to go. As we were leaving our waitress brought it out and I couldn't help but notice the expertly branded bag. What can I say, I live and breathe marketing.
When the check arrived it was attached to a Red Rooster postcard. More and more restaurants are doing this and I think it's a great way to leave your guests with a memento of their experience.
As I had hoped, the food at Red Rooster was off the charts. Though we didn't have a Marcus sighting (and believe me, I was watching), we could feel his influence in the decor, the music and the food.
My favorite thing about Red Rooster actually has nothing to do with the food. It's that every person in there was dressed to the nines. When we walked in it was like being transported to another era - the suits, the ties, the hats, the music, the drinks - it was awesome.
The next time you're in New York City you have to make a reservation at Red Rooster. Order the fried chicken and waffles, the mac and greens and the sweet potato doughnuts. And don't forget your suit.