As evidence of my lifelong wanderlust, at the end of the last and the beginning of this millenium, I desperately wanted (and tried unsuccessfully) to find employment in Scandinavia.  I even attempted to learn to speak Norwegian - the language kit sits atop the desk in my home office even now to remind me that I still gotta go. During that time I first heard of Marcus Samuelsson - then head Chef of Aquavit, NYC's premier Scandinavian restaurant. What truly interested me was his background - born and orphaned in Ethiopia, adopted and raised in Sweden, introduced to the joys of cooking by his Swedish mormor (grandmother), created a big buzz in the US and world cooking scene. I've continued to be impressed with his ascent if for no other reason than he was the only person of color getting that kind of recognition. I couldn't help but wish him well. Over the last few years Marcus has become far more popular to the world at large with his numerous appearances on cooking segments and programs including Top Chef, Iron Chef and Chopped,  even serving as guest chef at President Obama's first state dinner and more recently promoting his new memoir, Yes, Chef.   If you are wondering who else but a pseudo-bougie broad has a favorite chef, think what you like, just keep reading! 

Like most folks, I LOVE expensive things, yet I can mostly ill afford them now, and food is no exception. I've mentioned in previous posts how a copious amount of my shopping is either organic, small/local farmed or "boutique" items.  Often I've quipped that I detest "all you can eat" buffets (Fogo de Chao being the only exception) because all you get is huge quantities of inferior quality food. I'd much rather pay dearly for a small, well conceived meal by a serious Chef who considers his/her cooking their calling and high art. Because great cooking is an art not a trough call. For years, my ideal US weekend (yes there are South American and Euro versions as well :) has been a concert at Madison Square Gardens, dinner at Aquavit (and later Red Rooster), followed by lodging at a quaint but rustic B&B outside NYC proper. I don't even remember how the topic even came up but my BFF, Teri, convinced me to do something radically different this birthday - trek to NYC to dine (not just eat) at the Red Rooster Restaurant owned and run by the man himself, Chef Marcus Samuelsson. You can imagine the resistance I put up at the very suggestion of such a thing :)

Ideally I'd have liked to have dinner there but as NYC is almost as unfamiliar to us as Stockholm, we opted for a simple day trip. We took an early morning bus up (#816 - which I referred to as my lucky bus since it bore the same numbers as my birthday) and arrived in Manhattan around 11 am. Thanks the instructions of a family friend and former New Yorker, we caught the subway train (#2) to Harlem without a hitch. Less than 20 minutes later we arrived on Lenox Ave/ MLK Ave and having located the restaurant, I needed to answer nature's call. Since we had a 12:30 reservation which they called to confirm the day before (talk about fancy), I figured they'd let me use their nice clean facilities. The restaurant, though owned by Chef Samuelsson, has an executive chef (Michael Garrett), and as I said before he is in the midst of his book tour so I was under no delusion that I'd see him much less get to meet and talk to him however briefly.  I intended merely to taste his vision. As I walked through the outside dining area and toward the entrance, opening the door - a wonderous sight appeared to my eyes - the Mighty Chef Marcus Samuelsson.  I exclaimed maybe even shouted, it was half reflex, half disbelief, "There's Marcus!" I honestly expected him to just wave me off  but instead he swooped right over, graciously shook my hand, listen to me swoon about being a fan for over a decade, unhooked my dorkily-caught back pack from the door handle and thanks to Teri's quick thinking, he even took photos with us. A few days before our trip I mentioned to Teri that I dreamed I got to meet him while at Red Rooster but put it out of my mind just as quickly.  Now if only I could dream the lucky six for tonight's Powerball drawing... I'm no digital camera pro so I don't know what I did to the settings on my camera but the first half dozen pictures that were taken with my camera are nowhere to be found.  Fortunately - I birthed a digi-baby so the Wunderkind and her ipod saved the moment even though this is one of the worst pics I've taken all year. Gotta love teens and their propensity to record every waking moment of their lives.

Hello....VBG....Marcus is the other way?!#$
By the way, I didn't get to the restaurant's bathroom until much later because after we'd talked and I inadvertently divulged that at age 45 I dreamt about meeting him, I was too afraid he'd think me some crazed foodie stalker if I followed him into the restaurant no matter my true motive. So I trekked down to...McDonald's...double yuck...where I had to buy a drink in order to be allowed to use the toilet!!!  I'd rather they charge me .50 cents like they did in Germany but then it would have been immaculately clean in there and this was not Germany, it was Harlem. Okay so now, I've met my 2nd favorite celebrity - Dolph Lundgren being my first. (I must have a semi-Swedish fetish -yes, I love IKEA too- and I'm in no way ashamed of that, it is what it is) but how was the restaurant and the food you say?  Well the restaurant sits about 3 doors from the legendary Sylvia's (talk about a rough neighborhood) and like most of New York it seems they just gutted an old building and put in something spanking new.  It's a neat little spot with walls decorated by what I guess is Marcus' scrawl of recipes. The bathroom walls are covered with vintage photos of people who could easily be my own family members from days gone by.  Heartwarming to be using the john...with family...just this once, really. The wunderkind was totally freaked out by it and absolutely refused to go back in. While it has both a lower level where they offer live music 4 days/night per week and a large bar area the restaurant is smaller than I imagined. Now I understand why you often need reservations 30 days out! The clientele was mostly white while his staff was far less melanin-deficient. I'm happy about that - glad that a choice few are getting tutelage from one of the world's best especially when he looks like them - maybe among them lies the next Marcus.

I had neither eaten nor drank since for the 14 hours prior to our visit because while I'm not prone to them often, I wanted no digestive issues to interfere with my imminent enjoyment of the meal at Red Rooster and poor planning prevented me from preparing anything for us to noosh on ride up. The Wunderkind did pick up some french toast sticks at the rest-stop should you think me guilty of child endangerment or something else radical.  Almost as much as I hate buffets, I detest extensive menus and Red Rooster lists only about 20 items aside from the extensive beverage and prixe fix menus. As I said I've always wanted a meal conceived by a passionate pro so my choice of the 3 course prix fixe lunch was a no-brainer. The fact that it also included an autographed copy of his book made it a bonafide bargain at $45.

I started my meal with sparkling water (still trying to lick my soda addiction -5 weeks and counting!) and we shared cornbread the texture and and sweetness of a moist pound cake, served with tomato jam. I expected the jam to be sweet but it was not unlike salsa but not quite either. Afterward I understood that a sweet jam would not have made much sense. The tartness of the jam -  was actually a better compliment to the sweetness of the cornbread.

Lamb hash
Blackened catfish with grits

Cornbread with tomato

Helgas meatballs and creamed potatoes

My meal came with an  appetizer salad of heirloom tomatoes, watermelon, goat cheese, a basil sauce and toasted barley - so simple but executed perfectly. My entree was his lamb hash - cubed lamb, potatoes, in a curry like sauce flavored with his native Berbere seasoning (which he says is the essential Ethiopian seasoning) and was topped with beets and a fried egg. Odd combination I thought but I was in trusting mode and it worked. It reminded me of an Indian curry which was just fine because I love lamb and curries. Teri ordered the blackened catfish with chorizo over grits (these grits were perfect, not soupy like some ill informed establishments serve these days) and the wunderkind ordered two entrees Helga's meatballs as well as the mac 'n greens.  What can I say, she LOVES Swedish meatballs.  Now a word about the Mac 'greens - neither Teri nor I consider ourselves mac 'n cheese connoisseurs and for the life of me I can't figure out how it became essential to most soul food menus.  I am also no fan of collards so I was way suspect about combining the two. But I was in trusting mode remember? If I didn't think it would kill me and/or add the 30 lbs I hope to lose this year, I could eat this everyday!  OMG, Oh My God! It was just sublime, there is no other word.  It had just the genius inspired the blend of gouda, aged cheddar and comte in the right amounts and just enough greens so as to not be confused as a vegetable dish. Truth be told, I polished off the leftovers of that dish just 3 days ago and the Wunderkind asked upon smelling the her pirated booty "are you just eating butter" and "what smells so buttery"? When ever has 4 day old mac 'n cheese been that rich and still sublime - for me personally, NEVER, EVER ...until this week, sorry Mom.

Just so that you know I didn't drink the all the Chef Samuelsson kool-aid, I'll admit to being disappointed by the sweet potato doughnuts that came with my meal.  For some reason, I expected the sweet potatoes to be worked into the dough rather than used as filling.  I also imagined they'd be a bit more flavorful and...warm. Honestly, I have the genes of a Southern gurl - my mama hails from NC, my father from LA and my Dad from SC- so he had me at sweet potatoes. The Wunderkind loved them, too bad they didn't quite match my expectation. The coffee that I decided to have with them was heavenly though. Even straight black - no sugar, just a smooth warm mahogany symphony in liquid form. When I found the tiny pitcher of warmed cream, I had to have a second cup and once again I was swooning. The wunderkind indulged herself with the panna cotta with fresh berries for dessert - you'd have thought it was her birthday - and concurred with the Francophone sitting next to her that it was "muahh" with kissing the hand gesture of a well pleased Frenchman. I should say that Marcus did come to the dining room while we where there and stopped at nearly every table to talk to his patrons but nobody else got a pic not while we were there.

The NY restaurant scene sounds brutal and even the Chef Samuelsson has not been immune to a previous failure nor guaranteed the Midas touch in his chosen field. Red Rooster is pricey little joint to be sure - our 4 lunch meals, pot of tea, coffee and single dessert came to $145 (before gratuity) which is easily a week's worth of high quality groceries for most families. Far more important than the cost to me though was the experience  the Wunderkind go to dine at a highly successful restaurant owned and run by a world class chef of African descent that gets a rumored 2000 requests for dinner every night but can only accommodate 600 of Harlem NY. Would I go back?? In a heartbeat, I'd love to have brunch there and besides we never tried his fried chicken which he soaks in both buttermilk and coconut milk. I do BELIEVE Chef Samuelsson has created a precious little gem there on Lenox Avenue and sincerely hope he becomes a fixture as revered as Sylvia's. Plus he has a great story to boot.

Here's one uber cool thing I can scratch off the bucket list. Chef Samuelsson - you truly do ROCK!

I don't know about you but I'm thinking this all bodes very well for my 46th year. Happy Birthday ME!


Anonymous said…
Wish I had gone

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