Whether it’s the latest faux barbecue shack in Chelsea or a new Shanghainese joint in Queens, restaurants in this restless immigrant city are always in the business of assimilation and translation. No one has been more adept at this, over the years, than Marcus Samuelsson, the talented chef and co-proprietor of the great Scandinavian establishment Aquavit.
But with the opening of his latest venture, Merkato 55, Samuelsson has set himself quite a task. As every devout chef-groupie knows, Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia but grew up with his adoptive parents in Sweden. And now, having explored one side of his culinary heritage, he is turning his attention to the other. But Merkato 55 isn’t an Ethiopian restaurant, exactly; it’s an “African” one. And it’s not opening on some distant corner of the Lower East Side; it’s on Gansevoort Street, in the epicenter of the meatpacking district. Samuelsson’s reckless, slightly loony ambition, it seems, is to bring the jumbled palates and cuisines of an entire continent together under one roof and simultaneously to make them cool.
Amazingly, he sort of succeeds. These days, the shelf life for the average disco–dining spot in the meatpacking district is about three months. But right now there’s no swankier destination in town for “Akara” shrimp fritters fried the way they might actually do it on the Nigerian coast, or plantain fufu, or a semi-believable approximation of stewed chicken doro wat, served in a cast-iron pot, with soft rolled Ethiopian injera bread. The big, two-story space even looks like an African restaurant, albeit one hatched in the fertile mind of a downtown–New York restaurant designer. Weird, twisting root arrangements are stuck here and there between the rows of black tabletops, and the lamps are hung with what look like strings of puka shells. Batik imprints of elephants and noble African faces line the walls, along with sanitized, blown-up images of exotic spice markets (the restaurant is named for a famous outdoor market in Ethiopia) and colorful, chaotic fish stalls.
Is the menu at Merkato 55 actually African? Of course not, although in the early going Samuelsson and his very competent executive chef, the very un-African-sounding Andrea Bergquist, make a credible go of it. The kidogo (“small things” in Swahili) plates are served on big, silver tiffin trays, and you can order them in all sorts of unlikely, spicy combinations. There are excellent chutneys laced with semi- African condiments like blatjang (a ground Malay spice popular in South African creole “Cape Malay” cooking) and un-African ones like foie gras, pleasantly mixed with dried figs. You can get decent falafel and hummus, too (Egypt and Morocco also being on the continent), although the breads I ordered with them (za’atar from Morocco, sub-Saharan mealie cornbread) weren’t especially fresh. The best kidogo plates are the lamb, beef, and tuna tartares (tossed, semi-warm, with the Ethiopian allspice, berbere), and if you’re feeling adventurous, try the pungent “dullet spiced tripe,” made the way they make it in the kitchens of Addis Ababa, with a simmering of clarified butter.
Once you get into the “small plates entrées” portion of the menu, however, the old-world funkiness starts to fade. An inventive, fusion-style bowl of chicken soup is available (dressed with a crescent of fresh avocado, shreds of chicken, and a hint of peanut butter), along with a quaint, sub-Saharan version of frisée salad, tossed, not too disastrously, with smoked chickpeas, bits of baby eggplant, and mint. No one cooks duck better than the Scandinavians, and Samuelsson channels this talent to produce a warm, crunchy-skinned duck leg, glazed with honey and garnished with slices of plantain. He also serves a mild version of shrimp piri piri (originally a Portuguese dish, made with the eponymous fiery peppers from Mozambique); an inoffensive crudo-style helping of yellowtail dressed with green curry; and an ingenious spin on grilled octopus, plated with bits of cured beef and “dadel salaai,” a cool sub-Saharan dish made with dates and sweetened onions.
The chef’s subtle fusion tricks are even less noticeable on the larger entrées, many of which come across as standard versions of standard restaurant food gussied up with a few unusual spices. The “berbere” rack of lamb is exactly that—a rack of lamb with berbere—and the “Steak Dakar” is a pretty good cut of loin enlivened with coriander butter. My wife did not enjoy her mushy steamed snapper very much (“This is the worst thing I ever put in my mouth,” she said), but you could do worse than Samuelsson’s kebablike venison sosaties (it’s a South African play on the Malaysian satay), or his version of that de rigueur big-city dish of the moment, pork belly, which is cut in strips, hit with a mild mix of Jamaican jerk spices, and served with crunchy slices of green mango. But the most interesting entrées are the nourishing, thick-sauced chicken doro wat (covered with a pungent mix of tomato paste, cardamom, and more Berber spices) and the chickpea dumplings, an exotic, velvety agglomeration of southern-style dumplings laced with marjoram and spiced butter.
Will this semi-exotic menu transport you for a fleeting moment or two from the grubby confines of Gansevoort Street to the markets of Addis Ababa? It just might. But the terroir of the meatpacking district exerts its own powerful pull, and the rhythms of the meal at Merkato 55 (crowded bar area, festively themed cocktail drinks, a heavy club- music backbeat) inevitably play out according to the time-honored customs of the neighborhood. This is true of the expedient, slightly slapdash desserts, as well, which include a run-of-the-mill South African–style doughnut hole, little bags of generally forgettable “banana fries,” and a serving of chocolate “samosas,” which bear an unsettling resemblance to small, gnarled fortune cookies. The best of the bunch are two liquid items, a spicy yogurt lassi spiked unexpectedly with pink peppercorns and pistachio, and a nourishing, subtly delicious milkshake made with coconuts and avocado. I don’t know where in Africa, exactly, they drink green, gently glowing coconut-and-avocado milkshakes. But take a sip, close your eyes, and you’ll wish you were there.