Merkato 55 Deathwatched

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Over at Eater, they've deathwatched Merkato 55, Marcus Samuelsson's newish, chi-chi, pan-African eatery in the meatpacking district. That doesn't necessarily mean that Merkato is on its way out, but the folks at Eater are rarely off the mark when they deathwatch a restaurant.

A few weeks ago, I was working on a story revolving around the question: Will New Yorkers pay fancy French food prices for fancy African food? The subject didn't pan out as a long-form story, but it left me curious about how Merkato 55 would do.

After all, with the exceptions of some North African cuisines (like Moroccan), African food is almost never interpreted in a New York fine dining setting. When I interviewed Samuelsson, he responded: “Opening a restaurant, any kind of restaurant, in New York City is expensive and challenging. And people often associate high-end restaurants with certain types of cuisine and not others.”

He told me that he opened Merkato 55 with the intention of changing that notion that some cuisines are inherently high-end and others not. That's certainly a goal I can get behind.

So if Merkato 55 fails, is it because we aren't willing to accept African food in a high-end setting?

Actually I don't think so. I think the restaurant serves some really good food, but there are several serious problems with the way it was conceived that are working against it.

For one thing, there's the meatpacking district itself. One one visit, I witnessed the following scene:

A paunchy man in a blue oxford shirt was snuggled into a corner table with his younger blonde companion, who sported a black skirt slit up to her hip. He raised his eyebrows at the waiter, and said, “African-inspired? I’ve been to places in Africa where you don’t want to eat the food.”

It's a short jump from that kind of attitude to bad jokes about Ethiopian food being composed of empty plates. But that's also the sort of crowd that frequents the meatpacking.

Then, there's the fact that this is a tricky economic moment to open a 150-seat restaurant.

And it's true that many of us simply don't know as much about African food (it is an entire continent...) as we do about other cuisines. To give a mildly embarrassing example, I thought that the foie gras chutney on Merkato 55’s menu was a contrivance for suckers (like me) who will order anything with foie gras in it. It never occurred to me that foie gras might be an ingredient actually eaten in Africa, until I was leafing through Marcus Samuelsson’s African cookbook, Soul of a New Cuisine, and came across the tidbit that foie gras originated in Egypt.

The restaurant seems to be trying to split the difference between serious restaurant and clubby, trendy place in ways that are sometimes jarring. It offers injera bread (meant to be used as a utensil as well as a side dish) in a setting in which few feel comfortable eating with their hands, and serves absurdly expensive cocktails that are named after African tribal dances. (“We can’t call it an African cosmopolitan, so why not?” asked Samuelsson.)

Samuelsson was at the restaurant both times I went to Merkato, but many have commented that he seems disconnected from the project. However, when I spoke with him on the phone, he seemed devoted to the restaurant. And Soul of a New Cuisine, is a fantastic cookbook, well-researched and passionate.

But it may be that Samuelsson lost control of the concept to the other owners. Looking around Merkato, you have to wonder whom the repeat customers will be. If it’s the people who come for the flashing multi colored lights, those folks might not order, say, the tripe—one of the best items on the menu. A restaurant this large and ambitious has to fill seats to stay profitable.

I'm curious what you think. Is Merkato flawed, or are New Yorkers not ready for a high-end African restaurant?


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