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Harlem’s Red Rooster: A rare diversity in dining
NEW YORK (AP) - It’s a balmy March evening just before the official arrival of spring, and a few diners are already happily venturing to the small tables outside Red Rooster, chef Marcus Samuelsson’s eatery on Lenox Avenue in the heart of Harlem.
But outside isn’t really the place to be.
No, to feel the buzz that is Red Rooster, one should really be perched on a stool at the horseshoe-shaped bar inside. It’s elegant, made of different hues of wood, but more importantly, it’s occupied by different hues _ and ages, and types _ of people. On this evening, the guests are black and white, Asian, old and young, gay and straight.
They may be sipping one of Red Rooster’s signature cocktails _ the Earl of Harlem, for example, bourbon with Earl Grey tea and coriander syrup. They may be snacking on the addictive cornbread with honey butter while they wait for a table. Or, like Naveen Pesala, a physician who’s worked nearby for five years, they may be reconnecting with an old friend for a quick glass of prosecco.
But they’re all participating in something pretty rare in New York: a truly diverse, high-end dining experience, and one that brings people to Harlem from everywhere in the city.
“I’ve even run into patients here,” says Pesala, who’s joined by a friend from SoHo for the evening. “It’s a very unique place.”
Unique is certainly the word to describe Red Rooster, some 15 months after Samuelsson launched it. There was plenty of hype then, and no wonder: Even among celebrity chefs he was a celebrity, known for his speedy rise in the restaurant world (executive chef at the renowned Aquavit at age 24, and the youngest chef to earn three stars from the New York Times); his telegenic TV persona; his hip personal style; his unusual background (born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden); and of course his admirers in high places. He was chosen to be the chef at President Barack Obama’s first state dinner, and Red Rooster hosted a recent Obama fundraiser.
With so much attention, there was bound to be some quibbling. Some purists say the food, a mix as eclectic as Samuelsson himself, isn’t really soul food and should be. Others grumble about the prices (high for the area perhaps, but not for high-end restaurants elsewhere). A blurb in the Zagat guide calls the place “groundbreaking” and “uber-popular,” but also notes that “‘Unless your name is Obama,’ it may be tough getting a table.”
More striking, though, is what people _ even those who don’t feel they can pay $15 for a cocktail _ feel it is doing for Harlem.
“It’s a great thing for the neighborhood, because he’s such a big name,” says Gloria Dawson, a graduate student at Columbia University who blogs about Harlem restaurants. “And the best thing is that this will encourage other people to take risks, and open other places in Harlem.”
Dawson says she’s a particular fan of the fried yard bird (that’s chicken) and the shrimp-and-grits dish. She’s also partial to that Earl of Harlem cocktail. But mostly, she says, she loves the scene.
“It’s visually stunning, with all the artifacts and knickknacks and Harlem art,” she says. “It’s also incredibly lively.” And most strikingly, she says, “You really never see this much diversity in other restaurants.”
“I grew up in the South, and there was just a lot of diversity in the dining rooms _ especially after church,” says Knowlton. “Now I live in New York, and of course it’s a super-diverse city, but when it comes to dining out, well, it’s pretty sad that way. So Red Rooster has really done a wonderful thing.”
Knowlton feels the restaurant is a reflection of Samuelsson himself _ and why not? “With his crazy background, Marcus has been grappling with who he is and where he fits in,” he says. “So he decides to move to Harlem and open this restaurant. He knows the power that restaurants have over a neighborhood.”
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