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Rolling the Dice: Merkato 55

Every week, we take our turn with Lady Luck on the BruniBetting odds as posted by Eater. Just for kicks, we track Eater’s bet too, and see who is better at guessing what the unpredictable Bruni will do. We track our sins with an imaginary $1 bet every week.

The Line: Tomorrow, Frank Bruni reviews Marcus Samuelsson’s homage to Africa, Merkato 55. The Eater oddsmakers have set the action as follows (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars: 6-1
One Star: 2-1 √√
Two Stars: 3-1
Three Stars: 9-1
Four Stars: 25,000-1

merkato_logo.pngThe Skinny: Here’s a brief primer on Merkato 55.

Marcus Samuelsson was born of African parents, but raised in Sweden. He became executive chef at the star-endowed Aquavit (which features Swedish cuisine) at an extremely young age, and by most accounts the restaurant is still delivering the goods, night after night—not withstanding our mildly disappointing meal there.

Merkato 55 offers Samuelsson’s take on African cuisine, but the concept is problematic on almost every level. Samuelsson is hardly ever there, and according to Eater, “he’s said to own a single-digit percentage of the restaurant.” Does it even make sense to claim to cover a whole continent?

Samuelsson’s record outside of Aquavit doesn’t inspire confidence. His only other non-Swedish venture was the Asian-fusion Riingo. It’s still open after more than four years, but it’s totally off the foodie radar. When we visited recently, we quickly saw why. And it has a lot in common with Merkato 55: a cuisine Samuelsson isn’t known for, a restaurant he pays no attention to.

Merkato 55 is in the Meatpacking District, which is better known for pub-crawling tourists than serious cuisine. There are plenty of restaurants here, but the neighborhood hasn’t had a critical success since Spice Market, four years ago. Bruni has never liked a Meatpacking District restaurant.

Early reviewers agree that it’s possible to cobble together a good meal at Merkato 55. The better dishes are probably good for at least one star, especially as there’s not much else in New York to compare them to. Bruni seldom gives the goose-egg unless a restaurant is hideously over-priced, or there’s almost nothing worth ordering. Merkato 55 is better than that.

But to get two stars, Merkato 55 will have to have a high ratio of hits to misses. Bruni will be skeptical of the absentee chef and a neighborhood where restaurants don’t stay good for long.

The Bet: We agree with Eater that Frank Bruni will award one star to Merkato 55 this week.

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