NYC Restaurants

Merkato 55

CLOSED!

55-61 Gansevoort St (9th Ave)
New York, NY, 10014
(212) 255-8555
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Cuisine: African , Brazilian , Caribbean

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Cititour Review:
It was a few years ago now that I went to South Africa, and while the most memorable aspect of the trip was an unfortunate mechanical malfunction of our airplane and an emergency landing (that has since resulted in a white-knuckle fear of flying), my weeklong Safari in Kruger National Park was indeed extraordinary. It was a fantastic adventure, mostly because I’ve never been so close to animals as magnificent and ferocious without a fence and a row of children eating peanuts between us. How humbling. In between riding out on the dusty dry roads of the animal kingdom, scouting for leopards, flirting with giraffes, marveling at the hippos romping in the mud and the majestic lionesses in wait, I also managed to learn a little bit about South African food. We dined on fat chickens seared and crisped on the outdoor grill and slathered in peanut sauce, we ate puffy breads dusted in sumac and cumin, pulling them apart to scoop up lemony dips made from chickpeas and eggplant. We were served stews stocked with braised meats and livened with nuts and chiles. Breakfast offered warm fresh-baked loaves of brown bread, thick oat porridges and exotic fruits heavy with the sweetness from the hot sun. I returned to my real life with a sense of wonder—watching animals all day long gives you a very peaceful and, quite honestly, an almost perma-stoned perspective on life. I was left with a diary filled with musings about my life collected at the end of these long quasi-drugged days, written by flickering candlelight under a mosquito net. It was very Out of Africa.

Since my return, to be honest, I’ve lost that sense of wonder and awe. It’s something that retreats all too quickly once real life sets in. But I’ve never forgotten that trip—the stories of the people I met, or the concerted ceremony of flavors in the food. While I’ve eaten plenty in the years between then and now—Italian, French, Vietnamese, Cuban, Chinese, Southern, Mexican, Peruvian, Japanese, Thai, Malay, and on and on—I hadn’t found a meal that could take me back to Africa. That is until a few weeks ago at a place called Merkato 55.

Tackling this continent and its glorious culinary wonders at Merkato 55, is Aquavit’s Marcus Samuelsson, an Ethiopian-born chef who was adopted and raised by a Swedish couple from Göteborg, Sweden. The project makes sense. First, Samuelsson schooled us on the art of Swedish fish and aquavit, and now it’s his turn to bring us up to speed on the cuisine of his birthplace. The menu at Merkato 55 is the result of months of travel and research in connection with Samuelsson’s recent cookbook, The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa. His restaurant—which takes its name from the largest market of African foods in Ethiopia—harnesses the lessons of that journey and channels them into a pan-African menu that celebrates the vibrancy and diversity of the culture and foods of the African continent, from Cape Town to Cairo and everywhere in between.

Samuelsson accomplishes this first with the arresting design of the duplex space, which is credited to Dutch architect Menno Schmitz. There are maps of Africa hand-painted on the facing wall as you enter, and you’ll find African proverbs etched into ebony table tops, poetry written in wrought iron script and formed into banquette dividers, photos of the Merkato (taken by Samuelsson’s friend Andrew Chapman) blown up into mural-sized panels that splash color onto walls, windows hung with floor to ceiling linen curtains etched faces of the continent, and chairs upholstered in different Kiln patterns.

Your African immersion continues with a list of spirited cocktails named for African dances like the Yabara—Bacardi 8 and Lillet Rouge with hibiscus, mango tea, and lime named for the West African dance of welcome, and the Agbekor ($14), named for the Warrior Dance of the Foh and Ewe people. It combines Grey Goose L’Citron and Drambuie with chilies, saffron, and grapefruit, for a drink that’s balanced so it’s as sweet and tart as it is spicy. When I visited last week with a big group of my food-writing students, we paired a collection of these dance-inspired cocktails with a few selections from the Kidogo Bar, which is a sort of African smorgasbord (Kidogo is Swahili for small plates).

We started with ping pong sized falafel balls ($7) dunked in bowls of creamy lemony hummus, a stellar beef tartar topped with feta spiced up and warmed slightly with a hot chile butter ($11), and a bread basket ($6) stocked with Benne, Za’atar, and Meali—seeded and spice-rubbed house-baked breads, and hunks of moist and peppery cornbread. The breads were wonderful on their own, but they were not left that way. They were slathered with apricot blatjang ($4, a spicy jam topped with cooling yogurt), and foie gras and fig chutney (fantastic and essential). The Kidogo Bar selections are ceremoniously served on a large round tray, with individual items presented in colorful clay, ceramic and iron pots and dishes, like a feast might begin in Africa. It’s a great way to get a gang of friends started on dinner, but would do equally well as a meal on its own for two nesting at the downstairs bar.

Samuelsson and his executive chef Andrea Bergquist do a remarkable job with flavors at Merkato 55. Together they’re turning out food that’s impossibly vibrant; if every thing else is in color, this is food in Hi-Def. We had trouble deciding what to order, but since we were a big group we pretty much started with small plates and kept going well past the point when one of my student Emily’s button popped off her fitted jacket. (I was smart enough to wear a very expandable knit dress.) We pulled off soft pieces of duck with crisp skin shellacked with cardamom and honey ($16). We sucked on giant head-on shrimp smothered in a traditional piri piri (ginger, lemon, garlic, chiles), and demolished links of fiery Merguez on a polenta-like mash of corn pap lifted into the atomic heat range with chili-mustard sauce ($13). We ran through a small iron pot of barley tabouleh—grainy and chewy, and sprinkled with feta and peppery shredded arugula. The only dish that failed to be fought over at its finish was the octopus, a pair of pale, rather flabby tentacles served on sheets of cured beef ($17) that didn’t quite pop with flavor as the rest of the appetizers had.

Main courses, however, were shamelessly assertive. The “In a Pot” dishes should be considered mandatory. They are served in cast-iron pots with little handles that make lifting them from one side of the table quite an easy task (and people at opposite ends will be calling for them over and over throughout the meal, so the ease of transport is key). Lamb kefta—round tender meatballs seasoned with mint, garlic, and coriander—are stewed in a tomato sauce fired up with ginger, garlic and tomatoes and bedded on a fluff of cous cous and topped with a sunny side up fried egg ($19). It’s like a loose African interpretation of bibimpop, whereas the chicken Doro Wat, a traditional Ethiopian dish tastes vaguely Moroccan. Chicken thighs are braised until silky in onion, cardamom, cloves, garlic, ginger, lime and berbere (a feisty spice blend of chiles, tumeric, pepper, cloves, cumin, and ginger), and served with two “loaves” of Injera ($26)—thin soft bread that resembles a crepe that’s served rolled up like paper towels. Tear off a supple sheet with your hands, and use it to mop up pieces of chicken and sauce. Forget Bounty; this is the quicker picker upper.

As I said, there were eight of us that night, and even though another group of the same number might have stopped here, we forged onward and ordered more. Our next round of family style plates included the chickpea dumplings ($18), a dish adapted from an Ethiopian recipe. These are really more like gnocchi (airy and ethereal gnocchi, that is) and are served in a slightly Southern style with collard greens and spiced tomato broth. Tuna comes seared rare with a slight sweetness that’s balanced by a clutch of clams and spicy little sausages the size of cornichons ($28). The pork belly ($25) is bound to become an in-demand dish. To quote Project Runway’s leading diva Christian—it’s fierce. It’s served over a bed of refreshing green mango and radish salad, which adds a clean line of flavors that cuts the fat nicely. In an ode to the Caribbean, the pork belly is “jerked,” so it’s imbued with those lush smoky layers of the sweet and hot spice cure of its distant cousin—the leathery Slim Jim cash-register impulse purchase.

Holding her weight against the inspired savory menu is pastry chef Sunshine Flagg who turns out a playful roster of delicious desserts, with the tart and creamy Pistachio and Pink Peppercorn Lassi ($4) leading my list of favorites. There’s also a Malva Pudding ($10)—think a cross between cornbread and pound cake, and warm sugar-glazed peanut cream filled donut holes called Koeksisters ($7).

The service at Merkato has clearly gone through an advanced degree in African cuisine and history because the knowledge here is quite impressive. It’s nice to have service that’s this thoughtful, because it really adds to the delight of the dining experience. In the hands of another restaurateur, this behemoth in the Meatpacking could just be an overhyped mess. (Read: Sasha, the former tenant of this space.) The food, in my estimation, is really inspired and quite a bit of fun to eat and to share. (In some ways, it’s like Spice Market, but the African version.) My quibbles are really only with the prices of appetizers; many of them are in the $15-$17 range. Then again, servings are quite ample and plates are made to be shared, so you’d do fine ordering one dish for every two people.

I was impressed with Merkato 55 for one last reason that has little to do with the food, the décor, or the service. This is a restaurant that passionately embraces the spirit of a continent that is as glorious as it is deeply troubled. There’s no shortage of heartbreaking tragedy and injustice in Africa, so the idea of celebrating this land, its people, and its cuisines, is quite compelling. Merkato lets you explore the barbecue of South Africa, the dumplings of Ethiopia and the chicken and peanut stews of Ghana. Dining there is like a great road trip of eating. Perhaps it will be what brings you to Africa one day for the real thing. Perhaps it will take me back there, too.
Review By: Andrea Strong

Neighborhood: Meatpacking District

Chef: Marcus Samuelsson


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