Music has long been a big part of the culture of New York. Growing up in this city, I spent many a night in Harlem hanging out in clubs such as Bill’s Place, Showman’s Jazz Club, and of course the very popular Apollo Theater. Back in the day, the neighborhood was very different. Today, the signs of gentrification are everywhere, but thank goodness Harlem has managed to keep some of its retro soulful dives alive.
Les Goodson Soul Jazz Band, photo by Richard Bilow
Paris Blues is a classic dive bar located in West Harlem. It’s a throw-back blues venue featuring local jazz and blues. I stopped in to see the Les Goodson Soul Jazz Band. The bar was relatively quiet when I first arrived at 9:45pm, but it soon filled up…standing room only. I met owner Samuel (Sam) Hargress, Jr., who informed me that he just turned eighty. He had always been a lover of music and opened Paris Blues fifty-eight years ago. When I asked if the name was inspired by the Paul Newman/Sydney Poitier/Joanne Woodward movie with the same name, he replied, “No, it was inspired by my family’s history with the Harlem Hellfighters in Paris.” Paris Blues, 2021 Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd, New York, NY 10027;
Red Rooster Harlem has an excellent reputation. Chef and co-owner Marcus Samuelsson’s signature cuisine is just one of the many attributes this club has to offer. Featuring a weekly mix of styles – Jazz, Latin Jazz, World Music, and DJs – it creates a wonderful community atmosphere. Talented veteran musicians play the Red Rooster along with special guest musicians and singers allowing an off-the-cuff experience to unfold.
Manager Tynae Lester gave us a quick tour before leading my travel partner/photographer and myself to our table. We ordered a delicious Malbec (Susanna Balbo Crios, 2014, Mendoza) – a fruity full-bodied red, with cherry overtones. The place was starting to jump when the Yep Chicken and Waffles circa 1930 (Jesus’ hot breath, Vermont syrup, pickle chips) arrived at the table. The chicken was perfectly fried with a spiced batter that tantalized my palette. The waffles were soft with a delicate crunch and complemented the dish, along with the zesty cilantro dip.
Yep Chicken and waffles circa 1930, photo by Richard Bilow
Next, we enjoyed the Warm Beef Kitfo (beef tartare, berbere spiced yogurt, awase vinaigrette, fried Injera) and Sister Franny’s Crab Toast (blue crab, cheddar, ginger, yum tom, crispy shallots, cilantro, grilled flat bread). Both dishes were sensational. The Warm Beef Kitfo offered a multi-dimensional spice pairing. It was an exquisite flavor, but Sister Franny’s Crab Toast knocked my socks off. The delicate crab mixed with cheddar was a wonderful savory combination, but the spicy sauce and jalapeños on top brought my taste buds to a whole new level. Dessert was also delightful. We enjoyed La Isla Bonita (tres leche cake, rum, passion fruit, and banana) Coffee and Doughnuts (dulce de leche ice cream and mocha).
Sister Franny’s Crab Toast, photo by Richard Bilow
For a Monday evening, the Red Rooster attracted a huge crowd. The Rakiem Walker Project (RWP) played to a group of enthusiastic fans. The jazz band played from 8-12am and featured horns, drums, vocals, guitar, keyboards, etc., with many guest performers jumping in.
Supervisor and artist Leon Johnson came by to say hello and recounted his personal history with the restaurant. Johnson was recently promoted to supervisor at the Red Rooster, but has been a server for the past five years. Johnson is an artist and first met the owner at the Red Rooster. Samuelsson was working on a new cookbook. “I actually became involved with the cookbook when I handed Marcus my business card in passing,” explained Johnson. “Later, he mentioned that he was putting together a cookbook and asked if I would be interested and I, of course, was totally honored.” Johnson’s illustrations that were used in the book are also on display at the Red Rooster. “I like my work to come together like jazz – incorporating every line, every mark, every splat of ink in order to create my visual song.”
Artwork by Leon Johnson featured in the Red Rooster Cookbook: The Story of Food and Hustle in Harlem; Original art is on view at the Red Rooster
The restaurant sports additional art on the walls by artists such as Derrick Adams, Howard Cash, Brandon Coley Cox, Bobby Fisher, Mark Leckey, Lorna Simpson, and more.
After talking to Lester and Johnson, I soon realized the restaurant staff and musicians were a tight-knit family, blending food, music, art, and cookbook to boot. Red Rooster Cookbook: The Story of Food and Hustle in Harlem recently published, features recipes of many of the restaurant’s top dishes. Samuelsson has long been a lover of jazz. His book tour in October/November of 2016 featured the Rakiem Walker Project. Samuelsson’s idea was to bring a slice of Harlem life with him on the book tour, so he invited the band and the dance group W.A.F.F.L.E., thus creating a one-of-a-kind experience for all. Red Rooster Harlem, 310 Lenox Avenue, New York, NY 10027; http://www.redroosterharlem.com
If you happen to be in New York City and love music, take some time to re-discover Harlem…it’s fantastic!