Merkato 55

With a nondescript dark frontage, Merkato 55 delights on entry. The restaurant is a beautiful mix of modern, dark finishes with an African vibe. The second floor is especially beautiful with large booths, oversized blooming branch arrangements, and window treatments brandishing African faces. I am left wondering who those faces are and what significance they hold in the history of the continent and its culture. On arrival of the waitress we are greeted and handed menus that are mahogany boards. Unique cocktails and wines were pointed out to us. I later learned that the cocktails are named after African dances. A very unique one in particular is the "agbekor," which the waitress had recommended. It was a blend of vodka, grapefruit juice, and a floating hot pepper. The wine menu is limited with only one African wine on the menu, which I ordered. The South African Shiraz was served in a stemless wine glass, no different than the water glasses. Interestingly the water was served in a quart-size milk jug. Our visit happened to fall during Tap Project Week, in which $1 donations for tap water are made to UNICEF to bring clean water to children around the world, but unfortunately the restaurant was not participating.

We began our dinner by ordering appetizers that the restaurant has coined "kidogos" or small bites. We enjoyed a wonderful array of African breads with an apple coconut dip. It would have been preferable if the breads were complimentary just as the eight olives were. Still, the breads were excellent with a selection that included pita, whole-wheat pita, sesame bread, za’atar bread, a nan-type bread, and an African-spiced cornbread of which unfortunately there was only one piece to be split between the two of us. The menu offers about four choices per dip, chutney, and sambal, well over-priced at $4 each for only about two tablespoons. It would have been nice to order more, but we were pinching our pennies for the main course. We decided to forgo the enticing small plates for that same reason.

For the main course I chose the berbere grilled rack of lamb served with grains of paradise sauce and an eggplant stew. The lamb was perfectly prepared, tender, blackened, and crispy, but I found the three-rib portion to be a bit small for my appetite. But about six side dishes are available as add-ons for those with larger apetites. The grains of paradise sauce was good enough to mop with the African bread, and the eggplant stew was simple and flavorful, but also a small portion. The dish reminded me of steak au poivre, leading me to find out later (through internet research) that grains of paradise was used as an inexpensive pepper substitute in the Middle Ages. At $32 the lamb is the second most expensive main dish. Also exceptional was the jerk-style pork belly with a mango and radish slaw. The pork was served with a mole-style sauce and was succulent, fork tender, and crispy. The plating was very simple with the slab of meat placed on the sauce, topped off with the slaw. I was a little confused as to why there would be a dish prepared with Jamaican seasoning in an African restaurant, but it seems the conceit here is that the restaurant covers the entire African Diaspora, which I felt was a bit overreaching. Nonetheless the pork was a well-received experiment in fusion.

For dessert we both ordered the espresso chocolate cake, but it turned out, according to our waitress, that either the restaurant had run out of the cake or the menus were printed incorrectly. We weren't all too pleased with the other offerings that we were left to choose from, but ended up ordering the crushed-cashew-battered-and-fried bananas served in a wax paper sack with a small plate of chocolate, coconut, and tamarind sauce. Unfortunately the sauces were layered on top of each other on a small dish and could not be enjoyed separately. Taken altogether it was an unremarkable dish of inconsequential proportion. The fried bananas did not taste much like bananas and the taste of cashews was indiscernible. The waitress too had recommended this. Looking back I now think it is not always best to follow recommendations from the wait staff. The menu does not mention the crushed cashews, so those allergic to tree nuts should be aware. The waitress mentioned the cashews only after I had taken my first bite, but luckily I am not allergic.

I think the restaurant still needs to work out some finishing touches. The menu could be tweaked to showcase a stronger African influence. I expected to be overwhelmed in a good way with African influences in the food, but instead I found it underwhelming with the usual: pork, lamb, chicken, beef, fish or whatever protein with a simple African influence. I think that the preparation of the meals is biased; it is being filtered through a colonial European view. The countries or flavors that are represented in the dishes are allusive and need to be made explicit.

Some caveats of the restaurant include the appearance of what looked to me as unfinished plastered walls, restrooms that are so dark that they can double as caves with tiling that appeared to not have the grout completely washed off, makeshift paper coat room tags, and receipts handed over without the use of a folder. The restaurant manages to accomplish what I think it has set out to do, that is beautiful decor in the main rooms and bar, excellent service from the minute one walks in, and exceptional food of the highest quality.

Merkato 55
55 Gansevoort St
New York, NY 10014
Open daily for dinner from 5:30 p.m. to 12 a.m. and lunch on Saturday and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Appetizers range in price from $4 to $13 and entrees from $10 to $35.