At Marcus Samuelsson's Harlem bistro, global soul food takes center stage, artfully mixing Southern-fried, East African, Scandinavian and French flavors. While the former Aquavit chef, now culinary TV star, 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.
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. Samuelsson layers on flavors, generously anointing his crispy fried chicken with hot sauce, mace gravy and his own secret smoky spice shake; and piling pickled cipollini and plantain chips atop 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. The sprawling space is inviting and buzzy, the definitive place to be north of 110th Street. Doubling as a gallery space, the restaurant showcases oversize works by notable New York artists, including uptown residents LeRone Wilson and Philip Maysles. Harlem politicos mix at the teardrop bar with downtown fashionistas, everyone happily gorging on rib-sticking food.