After another late night led to another early morning run and hopping onto the subway after a quick shower the gameplan for Sunday would be an aggressive one – brunch in Harlem, hockey game in Jersey, post-game eats on the Bowery, and then dinner in the Lower East Side. With four different sets of friends, many miles, and many variables in play this was the day that required the most planning of the whole trip and save for one glitch – an old friend’s car failing him en route to Red Rooster – it went impressively well, my years of training in planning and capacity coming through once again.
Having mentioned Red Rooster I will once again reiterate here that I do not watch Top Chef or any other cooking television, but that I was aware of Chef Marcus Samuelsson due to previously considering a dinner at Aquavit during his tenure. I was also aware that he had made a gutsy move opening up an upscale soul-food spot on Lexington at 125th where I’ve more than once caught the M60 to LaGuardia. What I was unaware of, oddly, was the fact that Samuelsson had ascended to the ranks of superstar celebrity chef and restaurateur while additionally winning Top Chef Masters – something his website, my friend, and even my mother noted as if stating the sky was blue…some ‘foodie,’ I am…but then again perhaps it was best as I would emerge from the Subway and enter the restaurant without any preconceived notions for a 10am reservation for two during the Sunday Gospel Brunch.
With the day bright and sunny but having been underground for the better part of half an hour I was surprised to find the restaurant already busy and bustling on my arrival but on checking in my reservation was confirmed and I was led to a table only to discover five minutes later that I’d missed a call while en route – my friend was stuck only 2 minutes from his home and thirty minutes away thus leaving me on my own, a situation that given the soon-to-be jammed packed dining room led my server to suggest a seat at the bar if I’d be willing – an offer I accepted given the similar style of chairs and closer vantage of the music – and with that my water was filled, menu presented, and coffee ordered.
Having already explored the online menu in the days leading up to the meal and with no changes to be noted it took some time before I could place my order because the computer system is based on seating and there was some sort of glitch, but when my eventual server, Kimberly, arrived everything went smoothly and bearing in mind that I had a train ride to Jersey I told her it was fine if everything arrived at once – a suggestion that made her laugh as I “…ordered a lot” – but one she said was no problem.
With the musicians setting up and tuning up the restaurant went from half full to jammed packed by 10:30am and although the bartenders were not yet allowed to serve alcoholic beverages they were put to work with non-alcoholic cocktails, juices, and concoctions thus leading to my Ethiopian Fair Trade going empty far longer than I’d have liked, but on commenting to the young man before me this was remedied quickly and the cup remained full for the rest of the morning as he personally kept an eye on it since the crowd prevented my server from being able to.
With the time now just before 10:40 and the band starting into some slower Gospel tunes Kimberly would arrive (with backup) to deliver what even I will admit was ‘a lot’ of food largely because each dish came on a platter and all of them included smaller vessels of condiments, accoutrements, and spreads. Individually ordered there were four dishes in total and beginning first with the “main course” of Fried Yard Bird with Dark Meat, White Mace Gravy, Mashed Potatoes largely because it was the only temperature sensitive selection my first impression was a good one – the thigh and leg coated with a golden brown and flaky batter full of pepper and spices, the meat tender and juicy, and the potatoes whipped to just short of smooth. Noting here that I generally prefer white to dark meat and that more gravy would have been preferred, the one flaw of this dish was the fact that there was quite a bit of bone and fat to be reckoned with, but overall everything was well prepared and although perhaps a bit pricey, also quite good.
Not one to eat a big meat dish in a vacuum, bites of the chicken would be divided by a pair of side dishes, both ordered a la carte and portions of both taken with me for a snack during the hockey game. Beginning first with the ‘Breakfast Basket’ featuring Sweet Potato Bread, Walnut Banana Bread, Lingonberry Muffins, Mini Croissant, and Mini Pain au Chocolate I found this concept fascinating as it took roots in both American Southern cuisine, Swedish/Nordic flavors, and French technique – all obviously part of Samuelsson’s repertoire – and pairing the basket with locally sourced honey, whipped butter, and currant jam it was truly a well designed plate with the breads dense and sweet, the croissants airy and light, and the muffins the least impressive as I found them a tad dry – a problem remedied with the honey.
For the second side dish – just order the “Corn Bread, Honey Butter, Tomato Jam.” I don’t care if it is $6 while The Dutch gives it away for free, these thick and buttery slices are absolutely outstanding with just a touch of sweet and plenty of savory augmented nicely by both the butter and the surprisingly addictive tomato jam – a condiment somewhere between ketchup and jelly with a light sweetness and briny finish that worked beautifully with the pork-imbued smokiness of the bread.
Omitting the hearth baked mac n’ greens, French toast, and lamb & potato hash strictly due to capacity concerns (all sounded – and looked – impressive) my final bite of the morning was recommended by the bartender as a “must” – the Devil’s Food Cupcake with Caramel, Pretzels. Noting now my love for cakes and cupcakes in general but that dark chocolate is generally not my first choice, at a cost of $4 (since increased to $5) this small cupcake at first seemed a bit pricey, but after one bite I immediately understood the recommendation because beyond the dense cocoa cake and salty-sweet combination of caramel and pretzel there was a surprise…a Bourbon Cream center that poured forth lending a whole new dimension of flavor and texture to the dish – to date it is on par with Sweet Revenge for best cupcake I’ve ever tasted.
With a slice of corn bread, sweet potato bread, walnut bread, and a couple of muffins boxed up to go and the bill settled as the band moved on to songs that included audience participation, clapping, and even dancing I made my way through the multicultural crowd of all ages and to the restroom before departing and with the bathroom decorated in black and white photos there was one item that stuck out to me – a letter from a young girl that summed up my thoughts on Red Rooster entirely. Sure the food isn’t 100% authentic and of course there is a degree of commercialism that you expect from any celebrity chef, but what Samuelsson is doing at Red Rooster should be commended not only because of where it is but also because of what it is – good food and good service in a great atmosphere where some may have never considered venturing before.
From 125th and Lexington onto the 3 to Penn Station. Penn Station New York to Penn Station Newark by the NJ Coastline. A short walk, a great time with an old friend, a great game and a Devils win. PATH to World Trade Center. 4 to 6 and 6 to Bleecker – a short walk and some browsing at John Varvatos at CBGB before continuing further downtown and there I was at the doors of DBGB with the hour just moments before 5:00…ironic, I thought, as we’d been discussing Chef Boulud’s Bowery bastion of sausages and encased meats during the game…and suddenly there I was standing inside where I was greeted by the host, offered my choice of bar room or dining room, and swiftly ushered to a seat.
Perhaps it is unfair to brush over the previous six hours as I’d had a wonderful time visiting my 18th (now 20th) NHL arena with an old friend, but for the purposes of a website about food it is rather notable that I generally don’t go such a long period of time without eating (or sleeping) when traveling and as such while it may seem a bit odd to sit down for something to eat with only two-or-so hours until dinner I was still excited to be visiting my fourth Boulud restaurant in the ever growing empire. Just a snack, I thought – it seemed like a perfect timing – at least until Megan arrived with the menu.
Now bearing in mind that I’d considered visiting DBGB in the past largely due to their Omelette Norvegienne and my overall enjoyment of Daniel, Café Boulud, and DB Bistro I largely knew what to expect on entering the brasserie and bar; I’d even browsed the menus in weeks prior considering it for lunch, but having never been there before the first thing to strike me was the layout – by far one of the ‘coolest’ restaurant’s I’ve ever seen. With floor to ceiling windows at the front bar and the heavily wooded dining room in back featuring a long kitchen with different stations literally surrounding half of the room it seemed like there was action everywhere; sauté pans and grills behind me, baking and breads to my right, vegetables being chopped, meats being sliced and to top things off a collection of copper cookware from various landmark restaurants on shelves overhead…with Boulud’s standard French-Pop music it was almost sensory in a good way. Pairing this scene with hard wooden tables, candles, nicely padded seats, and service ware – again, very cool but also intimate and comfortable.
Getting back to the menu as my eyes continued to wander I immediately noted all the items I’d seen online but then noted the daily specials – it was as if they’d received a large order of salt cod and duck anticipating my arrival and along with the ‘normal’ menu no less than ten items jumped out at once, an issue under any circumstance but particularly with dinner plans soon following, and as such I settled on three (though it admittedly pained me to pass on the brandade, Vermont cheddar and pork sausage, salsify and duck egg salad, and roasted apple calvados soufflé.)
With the room slowly filling (it would reach near capacity by the time I left) and the noise level increasing it would not be long before my first bites would arrive – a much welcomed but also dreaded bread basket filled with warm house made baguette and whole wheat bread plus a sweet and salty Echire butter from France. Generally one to set no limit on breads I tried to limit myself to one slice of each topped with the creamy butter and succeeded…for a bit…or at least until my savory courses arrived.
Having okayed the arrival of both dishes at once as one was hot and one was cold Megan returned just before 5:30 with two plates, both off the daily specials list, beginning with the Canard Sausage with duck and pork, kasha varnishkes, and duck cracklins. Beginning first with the sausage, surprisingly served as two large links, each was absolutely brimming with the flavor of confit duck and onion while the pork took a back seat providing a bit of brine and smoke. Delicious on their own, what really made this dish shine was the “kasha varnishkes” – something I’d never heard of before but described by my server as a Jewish dish combining buckwheat and noodles, in this case spatzel, with onions…and in this particular version quite a bit of onion along with crispy duck cracklins. All told, things were off to a great start before I even moved to the two dishes I looked forward to most.
For the second savory, there was simply no way I was going to pass up the “Foie Gras Mousse with Port Wine Vanilla Glaze” and much to my delight it proved to be well worth passing up the Brandade. Utilizing whipped liver with just a touch of cream as its base and subsequently topping the nearly 3oz portion with the aforementioned glaze as well as passion fruit roasted red onions and roasted hazelnuts alongside buttery Crostini this was the way I love foie gras the most, the fatty sapor shining on its own but also acting to carry each of the other flavors to the palate. At times sweet, at times pungent – the crostini went quick and although more was offered the rest ended up on bread…pretty much the only thing in the world for which I’d eschew high quality salted butter.
With both savories as good as expected when Megan returned to find me essentially wiping the foie dish clean she smiled and asked if I’d saved room for dessert, the obvious answer being yes and without the need for a menu I made my request – a request to which she asked “you do realize it is for two?” with the only logical response being “well, you can have some if you’d like.” There was also coffee ordered – a bold roast from Fonte that was refilled at least thrice without request. Having mentioned my affinity for the room, if my thoughts on the food haven’t sold you yet then just go for the coffee – if there is a better coffee with free refills in New York I’d love to know where.
And so with the clock pushing 6:15 and on my second cup of coffee Megan returned with the star of the show – the item that originally led me in the doors – and a young man from the kitchen carrying a blow torch to present the “Omelette Norvegienne,” or baked Alaska (for two.) Not as large in portion as I’d suspected from the description, or the size of the savories, but quite the production as it was splashed with chartreuse and set ablaze I sat and watched patiently (along with a shockingly well behaved child no older than 6 who’d turned around from the booth directly in front of me) as the flames subsided and after perhaps thirty seconds Megan took the liberty of cutting a slice of the buttery cake topped with now darkened fresh meringue and plating it for me.
Having experienced chartreuse for the first time only months prior at Chicago’s Aviary my first bite of the cake was precisely what I expected as the potent boozy notes blended nicely with the butter, sugar, and cream to form a complex flavor not unlike that of an Italian rum baba. Moving next to the colored layers inside, first the mildly citrus verbena ice cream, then an almost bourbon tasting vanilla, and finally a dense sorbet rife with notes of raspberry – each layer delicious both solo and when mixed…like the ice cream cake at Parm but even better, and with pyrotechnics to boot.
With the cake originally cut into fourths I plated a second slice for myself just before my waitress returned to again fill my coffee and checking to see “how are you doing” I told her the offer still stood if she wanted some of the Omelette and with a laugh she told me she ‘wasn’t allowed’… probably a good policy because at least for myself I’d gain at least twenty pounds with such convenient access to desserts like that, let alone such a fine collection of savories.
With the room now greater than 3/4 full and the baked Alaska now a happy melting memory lingering in my mouth Megan returned once more to ask if she could get me anything else and with coffee topped off once more she delivered the check joking “between the coffee and the cake I’m not sure if I’d need a nap or if I’d be up all night” to which I just smiled – the answer was obviously neither; I was on my way to wd~50 and if I were to stay up all night I’d not be able to visit all the places on my agenda for Monday.