Merkato 55: Gorgeous, but a ghost town
Note: Merkato 55 bit the dust in June 2009. It re-opened as a pan-Mediterranean restaurant, Le 55. A Brazilian super-model is the owner, and Philip Guardione, from the Four Seasons in Milan, is the chef. We wish them good luck with that.
What must it be like to invest a king’s ransom in a restaurant that flops? Perhaps the owners of Merkato 55 can tell us.
In this gorgeous space, chef Marcus Samuelsson tries to do for African cuisine what Jean-Georges Vongerichten did for Pan-Asian street food at Spice Market, just a few blocks away. But four years after Vongerichten’s success, the once trendy Meatpacking District is cursed. No restaurant with serious pretentions has succeeded here lately, and Merkato 55 now seems doomed. It was a ghost town at 7:00 p.m. on a Saturday evening. When we left an hour later, it was a ghost town still.
Reviews were mixed. Frank Bruni in the Times and Steve Cuozzo in the Post weren’t impressed, but Adam Platt in New York awarded two stars, and Restaurant Girl in the Daily News an amazing three. It appears that the dining public agrees with Bruni and Cuozzo. When a restaurant is nearly empty on a weekend evening, the prognosis must be grim indeed. Eater.com put Merkato 55 on deathwatch, and then pronounced it a shitshow.
Shrimp Piri Piri
It doesn’t help that Samuelsson’s performance is phoned in, and he is only a small-part owner here. Even during the opening period, he was hardly ever sighted. His attentions are no doubt focused on his flagship Swedish restaurant, Aquavit, and various other marketing gimmicks that have his name attached.
For all of that, the food at Merkato 55 isn’t bad, though it isn’t great either. The menu has various “small bites” from $3–13, appetizers $12–18, entrées $19–37, and side dishes $6–10. I’m not sure how “African” it is, and as Cuozzo noted, on a continent that is home to 53 nations and 900 million people, any concept of a single “cuisine” is probably in Samuelson’s imagination.
To start, my son and I shared Grilled Shrimp Piri Piri ($17), which were slathered in a forgettable, gloppy sauce on a bed of equally forgettable Baby Romaine lettuce.
Left: Merguez Sausage; Right: Chicken Doro Wat
An entrée of Merguez Sausage ($19) is not for those with big appetites, but the contrast of spicy sausage with watermelon and corn worked for me. I loved the Spicy Chicken Doro Wat ($27)—a luscious, tender chicken curry—but it may not be to all tastes: my son absolutely hated it.
Left: Steak Dakar; Right: Merkato Fries
Since my son had detested both the appetizer and the entrée, we ordered the Steak Dakar ($34). The kitchen did a respectable job with the steak, and it’s a suitable bail-out dish for those who mistrust the rest of the menu, but it’s no more African than the fries that came with it (also available as an $8 side dish). I found the fries too salty, but my son liked them.
The beverage menu offers several versions of infused rum punch, overpriced at $14. I found mine overly sweet, dominated by lime juice, and offering no more than a splash of rum.
Merkato 55 is a decent place. If I were in the neighborhood, I’d happily go back for the Chicken Doro Wat, though I’m not sure what else you can depend on. Service was attentive, but the staff had hardly anyone else to look after. I’ll be surprised if Merkato 55 is still around next year.
Merkato 55 (55 Gansevoort St. between Greenwich & Washington Sts., Meatpacking District)