Have a Taste of the Haitian and West African Food From Le Marecage

If you want to see the very opposite of the crisp, buzzy, intense restaurant opening that's become the norm in this town, you should head immediately to Le Marecage (137 First Avenue, 212-777-1677), a small eatery that opened three weeks ago in the East Village. Here, you'll find perhaps the nicest people in this entire city serving food from Haiti and the Ivory Coast from a kitchen that moves at its own casual pace.

The restaurant comes from Mamadou and Ivrose Bamba, a married couple who've lived in Stuyvesant Town for decades. "My husband used to be a chef at the French Culinary Institute," says Ivrose. "I'm a nurse by training. We wanted to open a restaurant where people come and eat what we eat every day at home. My husband is from the Ivory Coast, and I am from Haiti, and that fusion works out well for us."

They opted for an address in the East Village because it's close to their home -- Ivrose says they walk to and from work -- and because they have a built-in community in the neighborhood, including many family members.

Some of those family members work in the restaurant. The couple's niece serves four nights a week; when we were in for dinner, she was training her nephew, watching as he quietly cleared plates and poured wine. A friend of the couple's niece helped design the space, too, which glows warmly and features one long pillow-adorned banquette.

Ivrose stepped in to explain some of the menu, which is long on items you don't often find in the East Village. We learned that Haitian-style paté, for instance, is meat encased in puffed pastry. Aloco is plantains. Atieke is cassava, but eats a little like couscous. Beignets and pastels are both fried pastries, with slightly different amounts of dough.

You'll want the aloco, by the way, which comes with a nice avocado salad -- it's a welcome play: the sweet, starchy fruit against fresh vegetables tartly dressed.

Mechoui, you might want to note, is traditionally spit-roasted lamb. It's slow-roasted here, and the meat arrives tender and quivering, its bone caramelized. It goes nicely with the rice au djon-djon (mushroom-infused rice). And if you want to try the atieke, we'd order it with the whole roasted fish, which shows up unadorned save for a grilled lemon. It's nice and simple, and well supplemented by the grain.

Ivrose says the menu will rotate with the seasons, and that she and her husband are looking for things like alligator, which pays homage to the swamp, for which Le Marecage is named. And she promises that the kitchen is ready to accommodate dietary restrictions and vegetarians, too.

Le Marecage has also amassed a fairly broad wine list with well-priced selections from all over the globe.

"We want people to be at peace," says Ivrose. "Comfortable, relaxed, and unassuming."

Le Marecage is open nightly for dinner and just added weekend brunch; the Bambas plan to eventually offer lunch, too.




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