Merkato 55

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At a party recently, I was chatting with Amanda from Eater about how disconnected I feel from the world of New York dining; how I rarely know what’s new, what’s not, what’s worth eating at and what’s worth avoiding. How does the Eater gang stay so informed? And how do the throngs of savvy New York diners know where to descend each week? And, come to think of it, where should I go if I want to go somewhere new and hot and relevant?

“Merkato 55,” she answered, quite simply. “It’s Marcus Samuelsson’s new African restaurant in the Meatpacking district and it’s going to be a big deal.”

That nugget was confirmed today in Frank Bruni’s NYT article Newest Restaurants Still Reflect Flush Times. Wrote Bruni: “But neither Adour nor Bar Boulud is as daring as the experiment under way by Marcus Samuelsson. Mr. Samuelsson, renowned for his Scandinavian cooking at Aquavit, is betting that he can make pan-African cuisine magnetic enough to fill about 150 seats at Merkato 55, which jostles for attention and affection among the Asian and Mediterranean behemoths in the meatpacking district.”

I’m a big fan of Aquavit (see here), I’m always game to try a new cuisine and Lauren–the friend who shares my birthday–wanted to take me out tonight to celebrate. So I said, with great self-satisfaction: “Merkato 55. That’s where it’s at.”

“Sounds great,” she said. “See you there at 7.”

This is the part of the review where, having clicked ahead, you scan the page looking for either mostly positive words or negative words. What’s the jist? Did he love it or hate it?

It’s a bit unfair to review a restaurant that’s in such an early stage—it hasn’t officially opened yet, it’s still in previews—so I’ll just say we loved our experience at the bar. Lauren had a fantastic drink that the bartender said might taste like bubble gum but that Lauren enjoyed nonetheless (it had a lychee in it):

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My drink was even better. I forget the name, but it’s the most exotic sounding and it has a hot chile in it and it’s fantastic. When you get there, look for the drink with the chile in it or ask the bartender what the best drink is–it’s pretty much the one they all recommend. I loved it:

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And there at the bar we had the best food we’d have all night. This is a tray of bread and dips from the “Kidogo Bar,” or the African bread bar:

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In the big yellow bowl you’ll see a dish that scared us both on the menu but that the bartender (who was awesome, by the way) assured us would dazzle us, despite its main ingredient: tripe.

“It’s a tripe stew,” she said, “but you’d never know it was tripe.”

And she was right. With a wonderful blend of exotic spices and aromatics, it’s an electric mix of flavors and textures. I loved it.

Faring a little less well was the apple/coconut spread you see all the way on the right. That, to me, tasted a bit like sun tan lotion, though Lauren didn’t agree. And in the middle, the cucumber sambal was spicy and refreshing.

If our meal ended here, I’d send you on your way to Merkato’s door, blowing kisses, wishing you a similarly wonderful experience. But, alas, then we moved to a table and, unfortunately, that’s where the meal went downhill.

(Though we loved the room… isn’t it cool?)

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Again, it’s too early to judge the place too harshly, so I’ll simply say: the food, while often bold and interesting, felt formulaic–as if Marcus Samuelsson (who, apparently, is not even cooking here; he’s in another country opening another restaurant)–left behind detailed instructions on how to carry out his dishes to a bunch of chefs who are scrambling to get it together.

The octopus, for example, which Lauren had was listed on the menu as, “Octopus, Cured Beef, Dadel Salaai Date Salad”:

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The strategy, as I understand it, is: take a relatively familiar restaurant ingredient–Octopus–put it on a plate with some African spices, some greens, squirt some flavored oils on the plate and send it out. It works on the level that any average restaurant dish works: it piles up textures and flavors in such a way that you feel like you’re getting your money’s worth. But are you?

I found the octopus a bit bland and the texture a bit too pillowy (not rubbery, but not crisp and snappy like you’d get, for example, if you grilled the octopus) and the other flavors didn’t really add much.

My Grilled Shrimp piri piri with baby romaine fared better:

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I really liked that the shrimp had their heads on them–it was fun sucking their brains out–but the plating and the execution weren’t terribly inspired. It felt a little off–again, as if the strategy of “fancy ingredient + exotic African spice = winning dish” was the mantra of the place, instead of: “Let’s share authentic African food with eager New Yorkers.”

To understand the strategy, one need only look around the room: this was the meatpacking district, after all. Who’s this place catering to? The Chowhounds or the Scenesters? Unfortunately, my guess is the latter and that was confirmed when they brought out the entrees.

How to explain this sad steak dish Lauren ordered, the Steak Dakar with Pickled Onion and Wild Coriander Butter:

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First of all, that’s way too much butter on there. Second of all, if you click my Aquavit review above you’ll see some brilliant plating. Seriously. Click it, because the plating at Aquavit is genius. But here? it looks like it was flopped on there and shot out of the kitchen with indifference. And as for the taste?

“It tastes like steak,” said Lauren. “I’m not really wowed.”

And what to make of this, “Venison Sosaties with Apricot and Cracked Mustard Seed”:

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This plate, and I kid you not, cost $30.

I repeat. That plate, you see above you, cost $30.

There are three skewers there, you can only see two, but still. I felt cheated. It was a big hunk of meat, a big apricot, some onion and some bacon. I could do better at home. I wasn’t happy.

The meal was redeemed a bit with this lovely citrus dessert—a salad with blood oranges, oranges, pomegranates and sorbet:

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And Lauren, the chocolate fiend, of course loved the chocolate espresso cake:

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But here’s my advice. If going to Merkato: sit at the bar, order those drinks we ordered and get food from the Kidogo Bar. That stuff is great and you can make a meal out of it.

As for the restaurant proper, it’s going to take a lot of work if it wants more than one star. This place wants it both ways–it wants to impress the foodies but win over the Meatpacking denizens too–and right now I’m not sure it’s doing either. I wish Marcus had taken bigger risks, serving authentic African food without pandering to the very American need for big portions of protein (steak, chicken, fish). If he had gone all the way, I could see this becoming a destination spot. As for now, my money’s on the bar.

And that’s my attempt to write a relevant restaurant review.

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