Is African food poised to become the next big thing? Marcus Samuelsson thinks so. Though he grew up in Sweden and cut his eyeteeth cooking Scandinavian food at Aquavit, he was born and bred in Ethiopia. Now, Samuelsson seeks to return to his natal roots at Merkato 55, showcasing food from throughout the African continent. Don’t be put off by the location in the meatpacking district, where Herman Melville wandered the cobbles long before Lindsay Lohan. There’s some daring and thoughtful cooking going on amid the glitz.
We arrived in a driving sleet to find a drafty room with an L-shaped bar on the left, and a high-ceilinged dining room on the right. The drafty part has since been remedied by a very African excess of heat. The room is decorated with lights swinging eerily in teardrop-shaped baskets, a giant map of Africa that looks like it was torn from a Coptic manuscript, and a colorful painting of charging elephants. “I wish this didn’t look so much like a theme restaurant,” Adam, the webmaster, lamented.
Samuelsson ambitiously and evenhandedly tries to cover the entire continent. He nearly succeeds, partly because the menu is so long, with nearly four dozen choices. The dishes are of wildly different sizes and densities, making it a challenge to put a meal together. Let’s first look at the Ethiopian stuff: The only full-blown entrée is doro watt ($26), often called the national dish of Ethiopia. Exhibiting a marvelous depth of flavor, the crimson chicken stew arrives swaddled in homemade injera, a fermented flatbread made with millet-like tef. (Note that in Ethiopia, there are 20 different varieties of injera; in New York, we get only one.) Instead of the usual boiled egg, Samuelsson drops a wad of cottage cheese into the gravy, a substitution reverently within the Ethiopian canon.
Ethiopian, too, is kitfo ($11), a miniature tartare of shredded meat lubricated with cardamom-scented butter. Samuelsson supplements the traditional beef with tuna and lamb renditions. Though the kitfo isn’t really raw (the hot butter cooks it to a medium rare), the wild richness remains. The kitfos appear on the menu in the left-hand column, the narrow width of which apparently indicates the small size of the dishes. In this column sits a random collection of condiments, designated as sambals and chutneys—the latter including an exemplary apricot blatjang from South Africa ($4), and a misconceived foie gras chutney that found us chasing little bits of cold liver around the narrow bowl.
The section also includes such Middle Eastern dips as hummus and baba ghanoush, reminding us that Egypt is part of the African continent. Alas, the dips come with toasted commercial pitas, a cardboardy material that might better be sent to the troops in Iraq as body armor. To go with the dips, spring for the $6 selection of African breads. These include meali (a sweet, fine-textured South African cornbread shot through with black sesame seeds) and za’atar (an herb-topped Middle Eastern focaccia).
North African fare is well-represented by lamb kefta ($19). This rarely seen Moroccan tajine features spicy meatballs topped with a fried egg, and the chef improves on the formula by using smoked tomatoes in the sauce. Among the “Small Plates” is a distinguished oyster service ($15) that heaps harissa mignonette and melon granite on a half-dozen bivalves. Out of Angola swims piri-piri shrimp, a dish legendary for its hotness throughout the Portuguese-speaking world. The critters are large and luscious, but the spice coating is way too bland to merit the name “piri-piri.” Among the “Large Plates,” South Africa is again represented by sosaties, sweet-sour kebabs usually made with lamb, but here deploying stylish venison. The recipe is associated with the Cape Malays, a group that first arrived in the 17th century, when Dutch colonialists deported troublesome Indonesian Muslims to South Africa.
West Africa is sadly underrepresented on Merkato’s menu. A chicken soup with celery and avocado sports a lump of peanut butter in its depths, seemingly inspired by the Senegalese peanut sauce known as mafe. The soup requires you to stir the lump into the thin consommé, and the result is really not worth the effort. Though name-checking the Senegalese capital, so-called steak Dakar ($26) owes almost nothing to the city, with its coriander butter and spice-coated fries. The thin puddle of plantain fufu ($7) offered as a side dish is a pale reflection of the springy and well-beaten mass served in Nigerian restaurants.
Certainly, you can get better West African food in nearly any borough. Yet what other place dares to offer such a spectacular—if flawed—catalog of African dishes?