In theory, nothing’s stranger than taking culinary inspiration from the lingonberry-munching, aquavit-swilling proto Viking culture of Sweden and the injera-chomping, Tej-chugging dynastic culture of Ethiopia – it’s like getting dressed with both Snooki and Greta Garbo in mind. A muddled muck of oddball spices, recherché but mutually exclusive techniques and quixotic but wildly divergent presentations is sure to result.
But that’s exactly what Marcus Samuelsson does, every day. The result: transcendent, luxurious, soothing comfort, in the best, cashmere-lined, double-stitched sense of the word comfort (in direct and violent opposition to the sloppy, homely glop that often gets churned out of restaurant kitchens around the country in the name of hominess).
On Sunday morning, I bundled up and trained it into Harlem for brunch with Lorraine, Kateri and Paula to sample Marcus’ magic at the Red Rooster. Even though it’s highly impractical, I love popping into the city for quick visits every once in a while – it recharges me to see those ladies, feel the heartbeat of the city pounding wildly all around me, breathe in that lovely polluted stank that hovers exclusively over the five boroughs and grab a great plate of fabulous food.
The Red Rooster in Harlem, Marcus Samuelsson’s justly hyped restaurant, is probably my favorite restaurant in New York City right now. I go there as often as I can, and not just because of the food – which, by the way, is excellent, if not exactly revolutionary. It’s the experience that really sucker-punches me. New York City prides itself on its liberal, open-armed policy. “Are you a unicorn-enamored leprechaun with a fetish for wearing hamster costumes while singing arias from Tosca? No problem! You will always be welcome here,” New York City blares to everyone who will listen, while quietly segregating every color of the rainbow into its own personal residential zone.
Every variety of European, Asian, South American, scattered indigenous population and African has its own little plot of land in the City that is – if not officially – practically its own to call home. Within each zone, it is further subdivided into areas devoted to families and singles. Gay? That’s a whole different area of town, subdivided racially and according the familial status within itself as well. Too often, people stick to their own residential zone during feeding time, and when they do wander from the straight and narrow, they do so in lock-step and with intent, at key restaurants well-known and promoted within their demography as socially acceptable safe zones at which to stray from their usual Cinghiale Con Polenta or Stinky Tofu. (And yes, this is a mild overstatement – but only mild).
Red Rooster cuts neatly through the bull – the restaurant is aggressively, joyfully, enjoyably inclusive – without shrieking about it at every opportunity. Looking around, there were happy gay couples with children, black people, white people, yellow people, all happily hanging, drinking and eating together – sometimes even at the same table. Crazy!
We had way too many dishes for our little table – maple-laced bacon, hunks of crusty cornbread with sweet butter and tomato jam, market salads brimming with oyster mushrooms and candy-stripe beets, creamy herring and potato casseroles, cheddar cheese grits, chai lattes, black coffees, beers, mimosas, bloody mary’s, goat cheese omelets, rooster scrambled eggs, we were hungry, okay – and the room practically vibrated with the sounds of glass tinkling; the cackles and cries of waiters, cooks in the semi-open kitchen, happy guests; and sunny blasts of gorgeous melody from the gospel singer on hand, who slinked around the steaming room. The Red Rooster is the Platonic ideal of Manhattan life, realized.
The food is great, the setting grand, the company priceless. I even brought a bit of inspiration home. Stephen and I whipped up a stew of sorts inspired by Marcus Samuelsson’s strange, happy marriage of divergent cuisines. Hints of Sweden and Ethiopia simmer in our Pork Stew and Orange Butter Couscous – but it’s all New York.
New York Pork Stew
Makes 6 servings
- 2 ½ pounds boneless pork butt, trimmed of excess fat and cubed into bite-size pieces
- 2 TBSP butter
- ½ cup dried apricots
- 2/3 cup golden raisins
- 1 TBSP ginger, peeled and minced
- 1 orange, juiced and zested
- 2/3 cup dry white wine
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- ¼ teaspoon cardamom
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- ½ cup heavy cream (optional)
- Melt butter in large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Brown meat with plenty of salt and pepper. Add the rest of the ingredients at once, except for the cream. Cover and simmer over medium-low heat, checking and stirring occasionally until pork is fork tender, about an hour. Reduce the liquid if necessary (you should still see some liquid but it shouldn’t be soupy.) Stir in cream and serve, over Orange-Butter Couscous and /or with spears of buttered toast.
Nutritional Breakdown of New York Pork Stew, with the cream: About 500 calories and 38 grams of fat.
Cost Breakdown of New York Pork Stew: About $3.75 a serving.
Verdict / In the Future: I got two enthusiastic thumbs up on this one – it reminded Stephen of a curry without the curry, whatever that means. There’s a touch of spicy heat, but the sweetness of the fruit balances it out and the savory flavor of the quickly braised pork infuses everything with piggy deliciousness. Is there a single part of the pig that isn’t absolutely wonderful? I haven’t found it yet.
Orange Butter Couscous
Makes 6 servings
- 2 ½ cups water
- 2 cups Israeli couscous
- 1 orange, juiced and zested
- 2 TBSP butter
- Salt, to taste
- Bring salted water to boil. Add couscous, cover. Turn off heat. After five minutes, remove cover, add butter, orange juice and zest, fluff and serve.
Nutritional Breakdown of Orange-Butter Couscous: 250 calories and 4 grams of fat.
Cost Breakdown of Orange-Butter Couscous: About $0.75 per serving.
Verdict / In the Future: The Orange-Butter Couscous is great as a side dish for roasted or braised meats in the winter, but I love it under roasted veggies or tossed with a handful of nuts and dried fruit for a quick lunch on the run too.