Some of the city's most popular restaurants serve food that satisfies on a visceral level---consistent, accessible, easy to like. Places where the music, crowd, drinks and space explain, as much as the menu, why it's packed every night.
Which sums up precisely the instant and overwhelming success of Marcus Samuelsson's new Harlem bistro, Red Rooster. The restaurant's global soul food, a "We Are the World" mix of Southern-fried, East African, Scandinavian and French, is a good honest value. But it's outshone here by the venue itself, with its hobnobbing bar scrum, potent cocktails and lively jazz.
Like an uptown Pastis, the sprawling space is inviting and buzzy---already the place to be north of 110th Street. Harlem politicos mix at the teardrop bar with downtown fashionistas, everyone happily gorging on rib-sticking food. Not since Sylvia's opened a few doors down has a restaurant in this neighborhood drawn so many diners from elsewhere in the city.
Red Rooster is Samuelsson at his most populist. While the former Aquavit chef, now a TV star with his own burger chain, mostly sacrifices elegance in favor of mass appeal, you'll still find the occasional haute cuisine flourish. Slippery ribbons of house-smoked salmon and gravlax---"lox and lax" on the playful menu---are served with Ethiopian injera fried into chips, in a pretty ho-hum multinational dish. But a paint-splatter smear of purple mustard lends a chefly touch to the final plate. Warm duck liver pudding, on the other hand, looks a little sad with a few meager petals of pastrami-cured duck breast shingled beside it, but turns out to be pretty inspired---a savory spin on a molten chocolate cake, with spiced foie gras oozing instead from its liquid center.
Apart from these upmarket detours, most of the food is gregarious fun. Dirty rice topped with four plump barbecued shrimp is more international than authentically bayou, the spicy chicken-liver-enriched pilaf flecked with an appealing mix of curry leaves and toasted almonds.
The main courses are even more gutsy---roadhouse fare in a brasserie setting. Samuelsson layers on flavors, generously anointing his crispy fried chicken with hot sauce, mace gravy and his own secret smoky spice shake. Taking the same more-is-more tact, the chef adds celery root rmoulade and pickles fried in chickpea batter to beautifully blackened catfish fillets. He piles pickled cipollini and plantain chips on oxtail slow-braised in Mother's Milk Stout until it's barely clinging to the bone.
All of this food is as relaxed as the setting itself---breezy and cheerful, its walls stocked with antique bric-a-brac and works from local artists. Desserts---apple pie with aged cheddar baked in the crust; a super-deluxe spin on a Snickers bar with chocolate ganache, caramel and a French sabl cookie---share the same everyday quality as the rest of the menu, familiar and homey but with a professional touch.
It all adds up to a place that, for reasons apparent as soon as you cross its threshold, has earned its status as a local hub. All by itself, a restaurant can bring new life to a neighborhood's culinary scene. For Harlem, it's easy to imagine that's exactly what Red Rooster will do.
Eat this: Duck liver pudding, shrimp with dirty rice, fried "yard bird," chocolate peanut butter bar
Drink this: The drinks list, heavy on dark spirits, includes cocktails by Moses Laboy that are as bold as the food. The Lenox ($15) enriches a classic Manhattan with tawny port and cocoa-infused bourbon, while the Big Red Rooster ($14), also bourbon-based, packs a cinnamon punch.
Sit here: The liveliest spots are up front at the riotous bar. For a view of the action in the open kitchen, request a table in back, with a view of the flaming wood oven.
Conversation piece: Samuelsson's new restaurant doubles as a gallery space, with oversize works on the walls by notable New York artists, including Harlem residents LeRone Wilson and Philip Maysles.
Related: Rooster Rewind