Entries in Merkato 55 (3)


Merkato 55

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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.

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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.

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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)

Food: *
Service: *
Ambiance: **
Overall: *


The Payoff: Merkato 55

Today, Frank Bruni drops one star on Merkato 55, finding the highs and lows that we expected. The highs:

With the qualified exceptions of Morocco and Egypt, Africa hasn’t received much high-gloss treatment on the Manhattan restaurant scene…

Merkato 55 fixes that, and how.

With some 150 seats on two elaborately decorated levels in the overexposed, overwrought, when-will-it-be-over meatpacking district, it does more than give many African cuisines a degree of conventional polish they don’t usually get…

That is not a bad concept, and Merkato 55, at its best, is a bold adventure, ranging across the entire African continent in search of dishes you don’t see often enough and dishes you haven’t seen before.

The lows:

The menu mingles inspiration with too many hedges: the tuna tartar that astonishingly exists in every cuisine’s canon, at least once that canon has been translated for modern-day New York; a lobster salad with ambiguous sub- or supra-Saharan bearings; a thinly veiled steak frites; a rack of lamb — supposedly graced with an Ethiopian berbere spice mixture, including garlic, red pepper, cardamom and fenugreek — that could be any restaurant’s rack of lamb.

My companions and I had lovely service and we had laughable service, usually on different nights but sometimes on the same one.

We and Eater both win $2 on our hypothetical one-dollar bets.

              Eater       NYJ
Bankroll $86.50   $97.67
Gain/Loss +2.00   +2.00
Total $88.50   $99.67
 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 38–15   38–15

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.