NYC: Red Rooster – Soul food and Swedish Meatballs in Harlem

Helga's meatballs, Red Rooster in Harlem, New York

Red Rooster is a popular soul food restaurant founded by Andrew Chapman and Swedish celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson. The location right on the busiest stretch of legendary Lenox Avenue in Harlem makes it an obvious place to swing by, if visiting Harlem, but this place is permanently busy, so don’t go without a reservation.

Red Rooster is only a few steps away from fellow soul food restaurant Sylvia’s, but even though the concepts sound the same, there’s a world of difference between the two places. While Sylvia’s has been around for years, Red Rooster is still the new kid on the block. The price level, and thus the clientele at the two restaurants, also differs, and while Sylvia’s caters to a very local crowd, Red Rooster’s hype still attracts what appears to be predominantly affluent Midtowners.

Though this doesn’t mean that you should skip Red Rooster and go to Sylvia’s instead, because what Red Rooster lacks in authentic neighborhood feel, they make up for in solid, tasty soul food. Marcus Samuelsson grew up in Sweden, so you’ll even find Swedish classics on the menu, of which the most popular one is probably Helga’s meatballs.

• A 3-course 25USD prix-fixe lunch menu is served on weekdays and provides really good value for money.

• Red Rooster’s weekend brunch is extremely popular, and if you want a table, prepare to book several weeks in advance.

My lunch at Red Rooster in 2014

One of the restaurants I really wanted to try, when I was in New York City in 2014, was Red Rooster in Harlem. Well, just too bad that getting a table was harder than applying liquid eyeliner without a mirror..

Though I wasn’t ready to let my New York visit pass completely un-Red-Roosterized, so I decided to just drop by during the less busy lunch hours and see, if they could squeeze me in. And they could! As long as I didn’t mind sitting outside? The sun was shining and wam-bam, I was having lunch at Red Rooster..

Red Rooster is the brainchild of the Ethiopian born Swedish chef Marcus Samuelsson, who is one of the few Scandinavians, who has made it really big on the NYC dining scene. Red Rooster opened in 2010 and those, who thought this was just a fad, think again, as this popular spot still fills the tables night after night.

At lunch there’s a $25 prix fixe menu, which was what I went for. First I had a creamy and well-balanced carrot ginger soup. I liked the fact that the ginger didn’t play the lead role, but instead merely functioned to accentuate the sweet, rounded taste of the carrot. The soup was followed by a generous serving of Helga’s Meatballs with lingonberries, cream sauce and a bowl of dill potatoes. This traditional Swedish dish was made to perfection and probably around a billion times better than the ones you get at Ikea. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever had meatballs this good in Sweden.

I was halfway through my Swedish meatballs, as I suddenly notice a person looking very much like Marcus Samuelsson, greeting a party outside the restaurant, only a short distance away from my table. Considering the location, chances are big it’s actually him, but I wanted to be sure, so I consult my trusted companion, Google, and do an image search. Click, click, open, and voila; yes, it’s definitely him.

But then it happens, and it happens quickly. Marcus’ phone rings, and he answers while stepping aside, all the way to my table, iPhone lying next to my plate, image still up, nothing I can do. Yikes! Did he see it? I don’t know, but my plans of introducing myself and ask for a fan picture fell flat that very moment. What would I have said? “Hi Marcus, meet Creepy-Mee, your greatest stalker. Would you mind me taking a picture to hang on my fridge, my walls and the ceiling in my apartment? Maybe I’ll even get a printed T-shirt!” Where’s that CandyCrush panic button, when you need it?

Anyway, on to dessert. The sweet finale was 3 Red Rooster doughnuts, with a filling of sweet potato. I was so full, I considered bailing out for a split second, but there they were, staring at me, and everybody knows, there’s always room for a doughnut…

I really liked Red Rooster and the way they’ve managed to make the place seem both cozy and hip at the same time. Even though the clientele was more upper-middleclass-Midtown-ish, than heart-of-Harlem-ish the day I visited, Red Rooster still felt like this neighborhood joint they aspire to be. The food was excellent and so was the staff. Hopefully I’ll manage to get a table for dinner, next time I’m in New York City…

Red Rooster, 310 Lenox Avenue (Malcolm X Blvd.) between 125th and 126th street, Harlem, New York, Tel: +1(212)-792-9001

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