I suspected this winter had reached record suck levels, but it wasn’t confirmed until I saw “Northeast” and “Siberia” in the same headline. There was no January thaw, so the accumulated snow trapped us in a polar prison. Even if you were lucky enough to book an escape, you suffered airport delays, cancellations, reroutes, and the really fortunate ones skidded off a runway at Laguardia last week.
So what’s a poor, frostbit survivor to do? I recommend making a reservation at a destination restaurant and then eating and drinking to excess.
I’ve wanted to visit Marcus Samuelsson’s Harlem cafe, the Red Rooster, since it opened five years ago. But reservations are difficult to come by. The gods smiled upon me, perhaps sensing I was near the breaking point, and I was able to secure one for the last night of NYC’s Restaurant Week. My party shuffled in at 6 p.m., like a bunch of Florida snowbirds filing into Denny’s for the sundowner special.
We were seated at a hightop table next to the wide-open pass. Like every one who loves to cook and wishes they had more time to do it, I watch a bunch of food television instead. So it was a real treat to watch an extraordinarily efficient expediter command his kitchen as a battalion of servers put each dish forward at its best. Plates were wiped, garnish arranged with care, and nothing sat under the warming lamps. I had assumed Chef Samuelsson would insist upon treating his guests like family since he always comes across as the nicest of the celebrity chefs (Gordon Ramsay, the meanest. Giada, the prettiest. Anthony Bourdain, the most arrogant.)
The menu at Red Rooster features comfort food sifted through Chef’s unusual ethnic filter – he’s Swedish and Ethiopian. My 3-course, $38 restaurant week menu included gravlax (thin slices of raw salmon served with a carrot salad), Helga’s meatballs with buttermilk mashed potatoes, and donuts filled with sweet potato filling and topped with cinnamon sugar. Because it’s winter and I believe in maintaining my fat stores, I also had deviled eggs and cornbread. Oh. And the hostess sent us a complimentary black bottom peanut pie because she and one of the servers had a startling collision near me. We joked about it at the time, so the extra dessert was an unnecessary, but sweet, gesture.
By the time we left, the front of the house was chaos. The bar was filled, cheek to jowl, with gorgeous, young New Yorkers. I am convinced they mill about in some subterranean holding pen and then, at 9 p.m. – WHOOSH – they erupt into trendy restaurants, indicating it’s time for the rest of us to leave. I cared not a whit. I waddled out into the slush piles lining 125th Street, as dumb and carefree as a fatted calf.
This outing worked for me in two ways: first, I was able to tick off an item from my “want to do” list and second, the food and atmosphere were exciting and unusual. If you need a holiday, book a night out at a new restaurant. Try a cuisine you’ve never had before, like Indian, Turkish, or Lebanese. Breathe deeply and let the exotic aromas transport you out of Ice Station Zebra. Spring is coming. I can hear the roof creaking.