There’s a new brightness and lightness to Marcus Samuelsson’s cooking, unlike anything he’s done before. Not at Riingo, not at Aquavit, not even at Merkato 55, where he dabbled in the cuisines of Africa. Perhaps celebrity chefdom came too early for him: With his slender good looks, winning smile, and captivating born-in-Ethiopia/raised-in-Sweden backstory, he was famous before he had a chance to fully come into his own culinarily. At Red Rooster he finally has, effortlessly blending East African, Scandinavian, and North American influences in a wacky fusion that somehow works.
That light touch is shown as soon as the starters hit the table. From the list of bar snacks (which could also serve as apps, shaving dollars off your tab) comes the dish simply labeled “nuts” ($4). Cashews, almonds, and peanuts—each with its own fascinating spice rub—duke it out with dried sour cherries and crisp swatches of injera, the Ethiopian flatbread. This trail mix is so good, you’ll want to keep a bag of it in your desk drawer. African, too, are the miniature beef patties ($5), resembling sambusas found on the streets of Addis Ababa. But a surprise is in store—the dipping sauce of pale green tomatillo would do a Mexican mama proud. This is international fusion at its most effortless and apt.
Located just north of 125th Street on Lenox Avenue in Harlem’s busy commercial center, Red Rooster is currently Samuelsson’s only New York refectory (he has two places in Chicago and three in Sweden). The restaurant was an annoying year in the making, during which the opening was announced and then delayed numerous times until its early December debut, and the service has been drastically uneven since that time. The interior turned out jazzy and elegant, though, with a busy décor that includes packages of down-home food products, musical memorabilia, board games, and other random objects that will leave you scratching your head. The front room boasts a horseshoe-shaped bar, dispensing invented cocktails, craft beers, and wines—with a few good bottles mercifully priced under $40.
The dining room features an open kitchen, where Samuelsson himself was seen bustling around in the opening weeks, replaced soon after by executive chef Andrea Bergquist. A photographic blow-up of an antique kitchen notebook dominates the dining room walls, with doodles and recipes in Swedish, autographed by someone named H. Jonsson. The signatory is perhaps the inspiration for Helga’s meatballs ($15), one of a few unreconstructed Scandinavian dishes on the menu. Alas, the six small spheres of ground flesh, lingonberry slaw, and tablespoon of mashed potatoes aren’t that different from what you find at Ikea. Better was a generous serving of gravlax ($10) decorated with purple mustard, fennel, and little wads of black caviar, which has been intermittently available on one of the three menus (lunch, brunch, dinner).
Samuelsson offers an homage to a couple of historic Harlem faves, including an oxtail so large, it might have been hacked from Babe the Blue Ox. It flicks in a dark gravy enriched with Mother’s Milk stout, brewed upriver in Kingston, proving that Samuelsson and Bergquist are at least partial locavores. There’s also “fried yard bird” ($18)—two enormous pieces of chicken dolled up with a sweet glaze, making them seem almost Korean, poised on a bed of stewed greens with apostrophe-shaped schmears of two yellow sauces, one fiery.
A few other soul-food standards manage to work their way onto the menu, including a rich mac-and-cheese made with orecchiette, gouda, comté, and good old New York cheddar. The entrée comes sided with a magnificent salad. In a dish currently offered on the brunch menu, Samuelsson pursues the African diaspora even further, revamping the Carolina Gulla staple shrimp ‘n’ grits. The crustaceans are joined by sausage and a poached egg atop a pool of grits turned brilliant orange.
A disproportionate amount of the action, though, is in the appetizers, where the chef’s imagination really takes flight. A date and I were dazed one evening by the rather unappetizing-sounding duck-liver pudding ($14). Meandering into science-chef territory, a grayish-brown dome the size of a bicycle bell quaked and released a liquid center when cut into. Next to it queued a series of duck pastrami slices nicely rimmed with fat. A pink-peppercorn sauce lent piquancy. The app was perfect except for a lack of bread to sop the liquid liver.
One of the best things on the menu is a dessert, a matched set of five killer sweet-potato doughnuts ($8)—doughnut holes, really, filled with an oozy yam cream and sided with lemon sorbet. As with Samuelsson himself, no one can be immune to their charms.