It’s the same every year, twice a year. Restaurant Week rolls around – I roll my eyes and ignore it. Sure, a $24 three-course lunch or a $35 dinner sound like bargains, but somehow they never feel as they should. Then RW is all I hear and read about so I, full of hope, succumb and make a reservation.
Red Rooster has enjoyed steady success since its opening about two years ago, but since owner Marcus Samuelsson, whom you may remember as the winner of Top Chef Masters‘ second season, recently published a memoir, this trendy Harlem eatery is more hyped up than ever. Red Rooster cuisine seeks to blend Samuelsson’s Ethiopian and Swedish roots while incorporating Harlem’s rich history. It was for this reason that I chose to make my reservation there.
The front on the spacious restaurant houses a wooden bar with floor-to-ceiling glass shelves that seem to hold every type of liquor imaginable, as well as a few high tables. It was there that I spotted Samuelsson in his signature cuffed trousers and vest, making his rounds. I was pleasantly surprised and somewhat starstruck to see the man himself present for weekday lunch service. The main dining area is warmly lit, and has a relaxed, homey atmosphere.
There were six items on the prix-fixe lunch menu so my date and I decided to sample all of them.
Heirloom tomato salad with watermelon, goat cheese and a basil dressing: The flavors in this salad were certainly an interesting combination but I cannot say that I enjoyed it because it was, well… it just felt very wet. This appetizer is a good option for those who enjoy a light, palate-cleansing start to their meal. I am not one of those people. I never order salads in restaurants. The chances of a salad being truly impressive are slim to none, and paying a restaurant price for a single serving of vegetables is just not worth it for me.
Roasted corn bisque with crayfish (a lobster-like crustacean) and tarragon: An appetizer like this is way more up my alley. This was right in both flavor and texture. I especially enjoyed how the grassy tarragon offset the sweetness of the corn.
Smoked salmon over a potato fennel puree with an orange sauce and shredded daikon: The fish was overcooked and practically dry, and I don’t understand how it was ‘smoked’ because it seemed plain old roasted to me. The puree was divine and the orange an excellent addition. The strong aroma of daikon (a type of white radish), however, stole the show from the other flavors; I wish there had been less of it on the plate.
Helga’s meatballs with creamy dill baby potatoes: This was my favorite. All the items in that cast iron dish were meant to be together – juicy meatballs in a savory gravy, warm sauerkraut with bacon, pickled cucumber slices with a hint of sweetness, and warm cranberry sauce. I don’t know who Helga is but I assume that she is a grandmother because a dish like this just can’t come from anyone else.
I was so excited to dig into these potatoes but unfortunately they didn’t live up to my expectations. Both the potatoes and the sauce were poorly seasoned. I also found it weird that they are called dill potatoes and not potatoes in a creamy dill sauce – I barely tasted any dill at all.
Berry Pavlova with mint custard cream and ginger meringue: I would have never ordered a dessert like this on my own accord but I sure am glad it was on the prix-fixe menu. The fresh aromas and distinct textures of the three elements amounted to a dessert that can only be described as exciting. Between the mint and ginger, this makes for a great palate-cleanser which is uncharacteristic of the desserts I usually go for. This was my second favorite item.
And last but not least, peach tarte tatin with vanilla creme fraiche: to be frank, this dessert pissed me off. Tarte tatin – a classic upside-down fruit cake with a buttery crust – is one of my very favorite French treats. Half of a roasted peach atop a round of phyllo dough? I mean, I understand deconstructed cuisine, but this is just a classic case of “Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.” I’ve never been insulted by a dessert before but I guess there’s a first time for everything.
Although it was a pleasure to have a lengthy meal in a lovely restaurant for a bargain price, I didn’t get to sample any of the items I would have chosen from the a la carte menu, which is exactly the problem with restaurant week. Yes, I enjoyed getting to know all the different flavors but by the end of the meal I found myself wondering if I would’ve been more satisfied had I just spent $22 on Red Rooster’s famous Fried Yard Bird that I actually wanted.
How do you feel about NYC Restaurant Week?