There's not much left to say about the scenic implications of a night out at Red Rooster Harlem, celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson's famously funky bazaar in the heart of Harlem. All of it -- the dizzying kaleidoscope of races and ethnicities; the rotating cast of local political figures and tastemakers; the dim, glowing ambiance -- was praised and praised again, tweeted and retweeted, for most of 2011.
But because Red Rooster arrived in happy convergence with Harlem's return as a hip, relevant destination for New York's young and young-at-heart (a proliferation of absurd acronyms for newly gentrified neighborhoods -- SoHa and its ugly ilk -- testifies to the trend), the focus on the restaurant's cultural novelty, its status as a kind of nightly tent meeting for the new uptown bourgeoisie, has often overshadowed its cuisine. Sam Sifton, for example, then the food critic for the Times, counted it "among the most important" new restaurants in the city, despite his estimation that "it may not be the best," and later asserted that the food is "not really the point, though it is often very good," and so on.
And while these stylistic hosannas are richly deserved -- the place and its people really are beautiful -- even the loneliest folks I know aren't willing to wait a month for a reservation (which is what it still takes at Red Rooster if you don't want to eat at the bar and would like your cornbread before bedtime) simply to hop off the 2 at 125th Street and soak in the futurity of it all.
On a recent trip to Red Rooster, determined to find a mouthful equal to the hype around, well, everything else about the place, I discovered -- stumbled upon, really -- a lowly side dish, strange and subtle, that deserves a mention all its own: the Yams & Sweet Potato Puree.
It's a simple dish - only two elements, really - and its straightforwardly descriptive name, together with a minimalist menu description (Bacon, Horseradish, Maple), surely causes a few hundred pairs of eyes a night to glaze over and slide to the next item. I'll admit to ordering it only because it's a sin of omission in my book to eat greens (in this case, the collards that come with the blackened catfish) without some root vegetable.
I come from a family that doesn't find occasion to puree much of anything, least of all yams or sweet potatoes. They're chopped into coarse half-cylinders, loaded with butter and sugar and cinnamon, and shoved into the oven at 400 degrees -- they emerge soft and fibrous, with a dark, sweet crust. So when this dish arrived in an orange, cloudlike heap, I wondered how its delicate composition would hold up.
Turns out: weightlessly. There's a thing that happens when you're dealing with a perfect puree, a frictionless thing I hadn't known about until that meal, a thing that can't fairly be called "chewing." It's more of an inhalation, a transfer. I transferred my way through about half of the cast-iron bowl before I offered any to my companion (who, by the way, has a grandmother who uses the puree method on her yams; still a denser recipe, though, involving raisins and marshmallows). Every half-inch or so, there was a thick rectangle of bacon, glazed with a sweet reduction of maple syrup.
(Trying to obtain the full recipe to the reduction, by the way, turned out to be absolutely impossible. Our waiter -- a knowledgeable, earnest guy, looking every bit the Midwestern transplant -- got us this far: syrup, butter, marsala wine. When I tried to pry loose a few more ingredients from the line cooks, who work in an open kitchen at the back of the restaurant, I was the recipient of about five blank, helpless stares.
"We can't, man," said one tall, coal-black cook. Samuelsson runs a tight-lipped ship, I guess.)
We were seated at a communal table, so I shared the dish, conducting an impromptu survey. I'll be honest: it wasn't without controversy. One woman, with a candied-yam past similar to mine, called the puree "baby food." For another woman, it wasn't sweet enough.
For me, though: Forget about it. The thing never stood a chance. The puree's light, fresh semi-sweetness, balanced by the saltiness of the bacon, was a perfectly calibrated counterpoint to the soulfully dense fare on the rest of my plate.
So, despite the short shrift it's gotten, there's at least one brilliant item on Samuelsson's one-page menu. (The rest wasn't bad either: I had a perfectly flaky piece of catfish over a heap of black-eyed peas, almost creamy in texture. The only off note was an oily, overcooked piece of cornbread.) And, luckily, while the hipsters and the scene seekers and the kingmakers flash their teeth under Red Rooster's charmed lights, they'll have a dish to order that's as singular and delighting as the surroundings everybody's already heard so much about.
Red Rooster Harlem
310 Malcolm X Boulevard (between 125th & 126th)
New York, NY 10027
Yams and Sweet Potato Puree: $7