There's a lot going on at Streetbird Rotisserie, Marcus Samuelsson's new restaurant in Harlem. Looks first: This place is loud. We're talking Day-Glo-bright graffiti (much of it made by Def Jam creative director Cey Adams), old-school boom boxes (go ahead and plug your headphones in; they work) and church pews-turned-benches covered in yellow leather and vintage Vuitton.
All that, combined with the open kitchen, windowed garage doors and retro soundtrack, make the restaurant feel like a giant block party—and that's no accident. "I think it's a modern Harlem restaurant," the chef, who's lived in the neighborhood since 2003 (his comfort food-focused restaurant, Red Rooster Harlem, is just a few blocks away), says. "Culturally, we're inspired by African American diners, but in terms of food, it's more of a mix of Asian and Latin flavors."
Streetbird Executive Chef Adrienne Cheatham | Streetbird sign
Samuelsson, who drew acclaim early on for his fine Nordic cuisine (at 24, he was the youngest chef ever to receive a three-star review from The New York Times for his cooking at Aquavit), found himself fixated on the idea of a local spot. "Brooklyn restaurants like Roberta's and Diner and Frankies 457 feel very personal to their neighborhoods, and that's really what I wanted to do with Streetbird," he says.
"This neighborhood needed someplace that really articulates its character," Samuelsson continues, launching into an impromptu verbal tour of the area's ethnic enclaves, from the Dominicans and Puerto Ricans in Washington Heights to the Mexicans in East Harlem to "Little Senegal" along West 116th Street ("And for years, the only places that would deliver in Harlem were Chinese," he laughs). "I wanted to think about those spaces from a culinary point of view," he says.
So it's no wonder then that the menu at Streetbird is fairly sprawling. There's the namesake rotisserie chicken ($5.50 to $14.50), of course, brined, steamed and spit-roasted to create a bird that's admirably crispy outside but juicy within (see Samuelsson's tips for cooking chicken). Then there's the Swediopian ($9.50), a nod to Samuelsson's own roots, which sees a half moon of the spongy, sour Ethiopian flatbread injera covered in doro wat, a deeply spiced chicken and onion stew, topped with fresh cheese and hard-boiled eggs. You'll think of it as a sort of floppy taco, until the Hot Splash ($8) arrives, made with a fermented teff and corn flour "tortilla" called tack tack (Swedish for "thank you") and piled high with hunks of piri piri-spiced catfish and avocado. It's what would happen if a fish taco vacationed in East Africa and never came back, and a pleasant respite from the chicken onslaught.
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Save room, too, for the Sho'Nuff Noodles ($9), a lo mein-inspired stir-fry seasoned aggressively with caraway and dill, and the funky Notti Greens ($5), tossed with chili and peanuts. Revisit the chicken, though, with a side of Auntie Mabel's Cornbread with Bird Funk ($4), an umami-packed schmear of chicken skin and fat, mixed with butter, garlic and ginger and left to sit for awhile until its flavors meld. (Bird Funk, for what it's worth, ought to be jarred and sold by the pint.)
The big atmosphere, small prices and casual vibe at Streetbird don't scream "destination dining." But it's a welcome addition to an already-vibrant neighborhood, which is Samuelsson's point exactly.
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