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Merkato 55

A splashy and unlikely outpost for African cooking.

55 Gansevoort St., between Greenwich & Washington Sts. (212) 255-8555
Dinner, Mon.-Sun., 5:30 p.m.-midnight
CUISINE Pan-African
VIBE African chic brasserie
OCCASION Trendy group dining; casual date.
DON’T-MISS DISH Lamb tartar; octopus with cured beef; jerk pork belly.
PRICE Small bites, $4-13; appetizers, $10-17; entrees, $18-30; desserts, $4-10.
RESERVATIONS Recommended

Opening a Pan-African restaurant in the Meatpacking District doesn’t exactly sound like a sure thing. After all, this is a part of Manhattan where the scene outshines food as a nocturnal crowd ricochets from one nightclub to the next. But chef Marcus Samuelsson
has never been afraid to take chances. At Aquavit, he earned praise for
a thoroughly innovative approach to Scandinavian fare. With his newest
endeavor, Merkato 55, he strives to recast African cooking in an
equally modern and prominent light.

It’s surreal to enter this splashy brasserie and discover a sea of
stylish diners spreading aromatic chutneys and sambals onto homemade
African breads. Taking a cue from the exotic cuisine, the sprawling,
two-story space is embellished with woven basket lamps, ebony tabletops
and sheer curtains with illustrations of African faces. Likewise, the
menu is colored with the vibrant flavors and seasonings of the African
diaspora.

There’s a lot of territory to cover on this vast culinary road map,
and it can make for an exciting night out, not to mention a welcome
reprieve from the blitz of seasonal American eateries this year.
Merkato 55 is Ethiopia by way of a splendid, butter-spiced lamb and South Africa by way of mustard-spackled venison skewered with apricots and smoky chunks of bacon. It’s a quick trip to Mozambique via meaty, head-on shrimp sauced with a pungent piri piri (chili pepper).

For the most part, Samuelsson tones down the spiciness for a broader
audience than this kind of regional cooking usually attracts. So if
you’re craving a fiery doro wat (Ethiopian chicken stew) that turns
your mouth numb, you won’t find it here.

Instead of piling on the heat, Samuelsson flavors the stew with just
enough berbere spices and red onions to produce a tingling sensation
without rendering your taste buds useless. It arrives in a cast-iron
pot with a cooling lump of cottage cheese and sour injera flatbread.

The jerk pork belly is tamer than traditional Jamaican jerk, but
this is just as satisfying and more intriguing. It gets a crunchy
tangle of green mango and chocolate-chili sauce that coaxes sweetness
from the pork.

Samuelsson’s creative interpretations also produce an unforgettable
appetizer of octopus so generously portioned it’s an entrée in
disguise. A blissful marriage of flavors, the aggressively seasoned
octopus is paired with cured beef and a chewy date jam. Just as unique,
a dish of savory-sweet plantains and bananas amplifies the delicious
nuances of a cardamom-scented duck leg.

The kitchen does turn out its share of flubs. Spicy links of Merguez
sausage sparred with a salty corn porridge that lay beneath it. With
such boldly flavored cooking, the chicken soup seemed like it belonged
to a different restaurant altogether. It arrived as a vapid broth with
mismatched accoutrements: a dollop of peanut butter, celery, avocado
and diced apples. And though “foie gras chutney” advertised foie gras,
I couldn’t detect any traceable amounts of it.

While dessert wasn’t nearly as interesting as the rest of the menu,
there was a wonderfully sticky malva pudding served with rum raisin ice
cream. The house-infused rums are apparently “still infusing” and the
menu seems to be evolving, with stronger dishes replacing weaker ones.
Authentic or not, Merkato 55 might just have you craving African
cuisine.

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