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Merkato 55


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I guess maybe we're answering two different questions.  Sounds like you're asking if it's economically viable for a restaurant catering to serious food lovers to open in the Meatpacking District.  Quite possibly the answer is no.  But if the question is if a serious food lover, such as myself, would have any problems going to the Meatpacking District for a good restaurant with an irritating clientele, the answer is I'd have no problem whatsoever as long as the food was good enough.  I've put up with far greater aggravations than that for good food.

As for whether I'd be able to convince anyone that I was serious:  Seriously, who cares?

No, I meant what the restaurant would have to do to convince you it was serious, and worth going to.

The issue I'm raising is how high the bar is -- what kind of information you'd require -- before you'd brave the throngs of braying drunk girls wearing halter tops even though it's 15 degrees out, falling all over you because their heels are getting caught in the cobblestones, in order to try a restaurant. (You know, described that way, it doesn't sound so bad.)

I'm suggesting you might need to hear more solid favorable reports before you'd go there, whereas in other parts of the City you'd be more apt to give a new place the benefit of the doubt and drop in to try it just because it sounds interesting. Whereas in the MPD (or MePa), you might instead tend to start from the assumption that a new place is a low-level clip joint (no matter how respectable the names behind it), until "proven" otherwise.

(That's why it was such a disaster for them to open the restaurant at a time when Marcus Sammuelson couldn't attend. What signal did that send about his commitment to Merkato as a serious reflection of his culinary vision?)

Edited by Sneakeater (log)
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...

(That's why it was such a disaster for them to open the restaurant at a time when Marcus Sammuelson couldn't attend.  What signal did that send about his commitment to Merkato as a serious reflection of his culinary vision?)

I know! You beat me to it!

:sad:

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Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)

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Spice Market didn't do that.

Some people may have forgotten, but Spice Market got enthusiastic reviews from pretty much every critic in town—not just Amanda Hesser.

I think that if the positive reviews start coming in (they don't need to be as rapturous as Spice Market got), diners will go to the restaurant. But I do agree that the default assumption in that neighborhood is that the restaurant isn't serious.

Edited by oakapple (log)
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Spice Market didn't do that.

Some people may have forgotten, but Spice Market got enthusiastic reviews from pretty much every critic in town—not just Amanda Hesser.

Just for the record, I'm usually the guy who reminds people of that.

And you know, when Spice Market opened, it really was quite good (even if not as good as Hesser said it was).

But it went downhill very precipitously pretty fast.

So what did that do to people's assumptions about the "seriousness" of restaurants down there?

And since Spice Market has continued to do land-office business even after turning into a complete shithouse, what does that make you think about any possible role for it (or any nearby business) as a culinary missionary, encouraging diners further to explore an unfamiliar cuisine? Most of the people who go there couldn't care less.

I think that if the positive reviews start coming in (they don't need to be as rapturous as Spice Market got), diners will go to the restaurant. But I do agree that the default assumption in that neighborhood is that the restaurant isn't serious.

We're really saying the same thing.

Edited by Sneakeater (log)
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And, my impression is (I've never been, and have been warned against going), that the mega-bucks "flagship" of the Bastianich-Batali team, Del Posto, might as well be named "Out-Posto."

Even this star-studded team's most deliberate effort, put in the MePa, turned out to be a culinary step-child, or afterthought, at best.

“Watermelon - it’s a good fruit. You eat, you drink, you wash your face.”

Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)

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I guess maybe we're answering two different questions.  Sounds like you're asking if it's economically viable for a restaurant catering to serious food lovers to open in the Meatpacking District.  Quite possibly the answer is no.  But if the question is if a serious food lover, such as myself, would have any problems going to the Meatpacking District for a good restaurant with an irritating clientele, the answer is I'd have no problem whatsoever as long as the food was good enough.  I've put up with far greater aggravations than that for good food.

As for whether I'd be able to convince anyone that I was serious:  Seriously, who cares?

I question whether any restaurant in the MP will stay serious and good...just like I would with Times Square. at some point they're going to turn cynical and not bother.

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I guess maybe we're answering two different questions.  Sounds like you're asking if it's economically viable for a restaurant catering to serious food lovers to open in the Meatpacking District.  Quite possibly the answer is no.  But if the question is if a serious food lover, such as myself, would have any problems going to the Meatpacking District for a good restaurant with an irritating clientele, the answer is I'd have no problem whatsoever as long as the food was good enough.  I've put up with far greater aggravations than that for good food.

As for whether I'd be able to convince anyone that I was serious:  Seriously, who cares?

No, I meant what the restaurant would have to do to convince you it was serious, and worth going to.

The issue I'm raising is how high the bar is -- what kind of information you'd require -- before you'd brave the throngs of braying drunk girls wearing halter tops even though it's 15 degrees out, falling all over you because their heels are getting caught in the cobblestones, in order to try a restaurant. (You know, described that way, it doesn't sound so bad.)

I'm suggesting you might need to hear more solid favorable reports before you'd go there, whereas in other parts of the City you'd be more apt to give a new place the benefit of the doubt and drop in to try it just because it sounds interesting. Whereas in the MPD (or MePa), you might instead tend to start from the assumption that a new place is a low-level clip joint (no matter how respectable the names behind it), until "proven" otherwise.

(That's why it was such a disaster for them to open the restaurant at a time when Marcus Sammuelson couldn't attend. What signal did that send about his commitment to Merkato as a serious reflection of his culinary vision?)

precisely.

by comparison, the early reports on Chop Suey are almost enough for me to check it out...but not quite enough yet.

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No, I meant what the restaurant would have to do to convince you it was serious, and worth going to.

The issue I'm raising is how high the bar is -- what kind of information you'd require -- before you'd brave the throngs of braying drunk girls wearing halter tops even though it's 15 degrees out, falling all over you because their heels are getting caught in the cobblestones, in order to try a restaurant.  (You know, described that way, it doesn't sound so bad.)

I'm suggesting you might need to hear more solid favorable reports before you'd go there, whereas in other parts of the City you'd be more apt to give a new place the benefit of the doubt and drop in to try it just because it sounds interesting.  Whereas in the MPD (or MePa), you might instead tend to start from the assumption that a new place is a low-level clip joint (no matter how respectable the names behind it), until "proven" otherwise.

I generally agree with what you're saying, though what I'm suggesting is that the market for "serious food" restaurants is much more location independent than other markets- because foodies will by definition go out of their way to find good food. They're also more likely to select restaurants based off of prior research: I honestly rarely try any new place these days where I haven't heard solid favorable reports; there are just too many options in this city. However, if I do hear one or two positive reviews about Merkato 55 (say, on this thread), it'll move pretty quickly to the top of my list of places to check out; as docsconz said, this is a cuisine that is underrepresented in NYC.

If my restaurant's target market is braying drunk girls in halter tops, it would be a major miscalculation to pick a location on the UWS. However, if my market is serious food afficionados, it's not that big of a deal to be located in the Meatpacking District.

---

al wang

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Not to argue, Al, but to add a further wrinkle to our discussion, I think there's a middle market -- much larger than "serious foodies" -- that consists of people who merely enjoy good food. I think that they -- rather than us -- are the target audience of most "serious" good restaurants (there simply aren't enough of us). I also would have thought those were the people docsconz was talking about when he said that, even if the notion of some pan-African brasserie cuisine was questionable, a restaurant like Merkato 55 could raise awareness of African cuisine.

You don't need to raise our awareness of African cuisine: I know a group of people travelling out to Flatbush tonight to try a Ghanian place. And you can't raise the braying drunk halter-top girls' awareness, cuz they don't care.

My point is that this middle market I'm talking about are probably very location-sensitive, much more than we are. I don't think they'd go absolutely anywhere for good food, the way we would. And I think they'd find the circus-like atmosphere of the Meatpacking District in full roar enough of a turn-off to prevent them from going to a restaurant there, and certainly from returning for repeat visits once they've been. There are too many good places to go to in other neighborhoods that don't have that problem.

Edited by Sneakeater (log)
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Not to argue, Al, but to add a further wrinkle to our discussion, I think there's a middle market -- much larger than "serious foodies" -- that consists of people who merely enjoy good food.  I think that they -- rather than us -- are the target audience of most "serious" good restaurants (there simply aren't enough of us). I also would have thought those were the people docsconz was talking about when he said that, even if the notion of some pan-African brasserie cuisine was questionable, a restaurant like Merkato 55 could raise awareness of African cuisine.

this is exactly what I was going to say. there's a large group of people out there who aren't exactly civilians, but they're not as obsessed as us. they keep a lot of good restaurants in business. they're the Zagat voters, the Yelp writers....or they do neither of those...but they're that kind of people.

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...  they're the Zagat voters, the Yelp writers....or they do neither of those...but they're that kind of people.

:laugh:

Short of sounding like a broken record, I'm going to state it again: I'm very anxious to find out what "African brasserie" food is.

Except for ryanj's post about the friends and family event, I have yet to hear about the food post-opening. It has opened, hasn't it?

“Watermelon - it’s a good fruit. You eat, you drink, you wash your face.”

Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)

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LOL Meatpacking is not THAT bad; in fact, the best club and crowd in the entire CITY (Cielo) is on Little W 12th. I will definitely be going to Merkat on a Wednesday before I go and get my deep house fix from Louie Vega and Kevin Hedge. I'll report back, in the meantime I'll be trying out stuff from the cookbook right at home. :)

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  • 3 weeks later...

at least for now, it's really good.

part of a party of four so we tried a pretty extensive selection of the menu (btw, this was one of those places which proves that often you're better off not getting a reservation. the only reservation for four available was for 11 PM. we skipped that, showed up at 10 and were eating 15 minutes later.)

tried a bunch of small plates...mainly chutney-type items. the sundried tomato and the mildly spiced (my companions will probably disagree) chili were standouts. so was the dullet-minced tripe.

also had a bunch of larger plates. jerk pork belly was good...although the jerk wasn't much in evidence. chickpea dumplings were very good...reminding me of gnocchi actually. lamb kitfo was very very flavorful.

cocktail list sucks btw. the Kenyan Tusker lager went well with the food though. prices are quite reasonable.

go now while it's good.

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We went two weekends ago. It's excellent, or at least the more authentic end of the menu is. Second what nathan said - the lamb kitfo is excellent. The breads are also super top notch, and the doro wat was the best I've had. One slight disappointment was that the injera was not as sour (or as thick) as everywhere else I've ever had it - don't know if that's to make it more accessible to those unfamiliar with the cuisine, or just a stylistic choice, but didn't find it quite made the cut.

The crowd definitely broke into 2 groups - those who were there for the food, and those who were there since it's in MePa.

I'd call it the best african I've had in NY in a while, definitely since Caffe Adulis closed.

I want pancakes! God, do you people understand every language except English? Yo quiero pancakes! Donnez moi pancakes! Click click bloody click pancakes!

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It's obvious that for the people who care the opening to watch of the late winter/early spring is undoubtedly Momofuku Ko. With that said, Merkato 55 is also of interest for a number of reasons: huge name chef, interesting cuisine, trendy/annoying address. The jury is still out as to whether this restaurant will become the next Spice Market. To be honest, I'm not quite sure myself.

My gut feeling is that this restaurant is more interesting than it is great. I am fuzzily acquainted with African cuisines, primarily Moroccan and Ethiopian, but said meals have taken place in spaces nowhere near as swanky as this. During those those previous experiences there definitely was no new world house music playing the background.

To set the scene, as soon as I park the car in front of the restaurant I look to my left and there is a fashion photo shoot taking place on the other side of the street. This is at about 7:30, so it's pretty dark. Welcome to the MePa.

I walk in, give my name to the hostess and ask if there's any chance we can be sat early for our 8 pm reservation. She's pleasant enough and says she'll do what she can, so I grab a drink at the bar. The cocktails, as Nathan says, aren't very good. Mainly vodka based and sweet. Something with pear vodka and white grape juice tasted, as one of my companions suggested, "like a jelly bean." Hmm. Still, she enjoyed it. My selection was somewhat better, tempered with grapefruit, saffron, and chili. I liked the savory and bitter components, but it still wanted for balance.

A few minutes later another companion decided to check her coat with the hostess and asked if she'd be able to seat us soon. The hostess responds, "As soon as possible"--pauses for dramatic effect-- "as I told the gentleman." Hmm. Was that necessary? It's not like she was a bitch or anything but it gave off an icy vibe.

Thankfully a few minutes after that we're led to our table. This is probably the trendiest dining room I've been in since, like, ever. It's attractive enough but way over-designed to my tastes. Our server was nice, knew the menu well, and the food was well paced despite a slightly slow start to get things rolling out of the kitchen. We ordered a lot of food, and thankfully when I asked the server if what I selected was enough she didn't try to upsell a couple sides or anything like that. Some of the backwait was a bit overeager to clear plates--it wasn't even super crowded--but nothing too egregious.

The food, as I mentioned, is interesting and usually quite tasty. I definitely could not eat this food everyday, as it's just too heavily spiced for frequent consumption. One of companions remarked that it was like palate overload, and I must say that I agree. Although I see parallels between Merkato's cuisine and those of India and the Middle East, this is on an entirely different level when it comes to assertive seasonings and flavor combinations.

The weakest part of the meal was the beginning, where we ordered the breads, the apple yogurt, and the foie chutney. The foie was the definitely the low point of the evening. If there was foie present, I missed it, as I could hardly taste liver at all. It was mainly, if not all, dates. Not recommended, especially for $9. The apple yogurt was simply yogurt with pieces of cooked apple strewn throughout. I was envisioning something along the same philosophical lines of "apple butter," more like yogurt-y apple than apple-y yogurt. We also ordered the basket of breads, which I found interesting if just a bit overwhelming. It's a lot of starch.

Things got better with the small plates--unlike our servers description, they aren't very small at all--where we ordered the octopus and lobster salads and the sausage. We also tried the tuna tartar from the previous section of the menu in this round of food. The tartar was almost more about the seasonings than the fish. Not a bad thing, just different. The seafood salads were also quite good. The octopus lacked the grill treatment that most octopus dishes in this city get, so it tasted more of the sea without the smoke to cover its natural flavor. One of my party thought it was a bit fishy, an assessment I suppose I agree with but didn't find offensive. The lobster salad could've been a great dish if it was executed better. The lobster was probably B-quality so its flavor was somewhat lost in the creamy, slaw-like salad. Still, this was like a novel take on a lobster roll and the least spiced of all the dishes we tried. The merguez was rustic and sat atop a creamy corn puree-mash that I found quite appealing.

We then split two mains, the chicken doro wat and the pork belly. I wish they'd serve the injera folded and off to side with the chicken as it gets rather soggy and cumbersome to use for wrapping when it's rolled up and placed under the sauce. I liked this dish though; it reminded us of a cross between a curry and a mole. The pork belly was also quite tasty and a bit firmer than what one finds at most restaurants that braise the cut to the point of nothingness. This had a bit of texture to it that I found pleasing. I'm not sure what "jerk" refers to in this case, but, again, I simply found it it spiced. I don't really have the vocabulary and the experience with this type of cuisine to accurately convey the differences in the sauces, marinades and seasoning blends though they are apparent.

Didn't do dessert, too full. Total came to about $190 with the above food and two beers. This was for three peeople. The cocktails were paid for at the bar--no, they don't transfer tabs from bar to table.

Chef Samuelsson was in house making rounds at VIP tables. Seated right behind us was that VP dude from Scripps/FN who appears on Next FN Star. The real anal-seeming guy. You know who I'm talking about. Some other person who I thought was famous, or looked like he could've been famous, was also getting a lot of attention from the chef. It wasn't a gross amount of pandering, however.

Bruni will give this place one star. The chance for two is there for the novelty of it--Chef Samuelson is quite expert at carving out unique niches for himself. I enjoyed my meal and thought it was a truly different culinary experience--it's not like I can say, well, we could've had food nearly this good in NJ--but I won't necessarily be rushing back.

Edited by BryanZ (log)
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To set the scene, as soon as I park the car in front of the restaurant I look to my left and there is a fashion photo shoot taking place on the other side of the street.  This is at about 7:30, so it's pretty dark.  Welcome to the MePa.

oh the model in the red dress? I saw that when I was walking home at that time. they shoot on that intersection all the time....it makes for an awesome soft-focus background...

we had the octopus as well...my thoughts were similar.

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Yes.  She was very thin and rather attractive.

Yes, the generally are. :laugh:

On another note, I got to see (professionally-taken) photos of the interior. Interesting aesthetic. It's very - dark... almost like blackwoods and accents. It seemed very MePa-ish, if there is such a thing. Well, I suppose I mean that it looks all very hip and young-trendy. Scene-y?

When will LARGE PORTRAITS cease to be an interesting design concept? Those EYES.

“Watermelon - it’s a good fruit. You eat, you drink, you wash your face.”

Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)

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I'm going to go out on a limb here and disagree with some of the above posters who liked this place. With a party of four last night, our experience certainly wasn't anything that would make me want to return, either for the food or service.

Starting with the cocktails (and I'll disagree with BryanZ here, as most of them were rum based), I had the one (at the bar) reported on in Sunday's NY Times - the Kinka ($14), evidently a Junior Merino drink. Sounds great in print - rum, Averna, tamarind, lemon, blood orange - the ingredients were free poured, turning the drink into a rather sweet, unbalanced cocktail. My wife, going "off-menu," had a Beefeater martini, also free-poured, shaken lightly, served too warm, etc. etc. So, let's forget about the cocktail program, for starters. Or at least until they buy jiggers, strainers and stirrers and train the bartenders how to use them.

And then, seated upstairs (a great room, imo) , our party ordered a number of the starters to enjoy while we looked over the rest of the menu, whereupon we were informed by our server that we needed to order the whole meal at one time...kinda weird in a restaurant that offers starters for sharing, small plates, etc. But, sticking to our guns and saying no, we're annoying customers and we want starters first, she went to the kitchen and came back and took our order for starters, though she wasn't able to describe to me how the tripe was prepared, even though she told us that she was there from day 1. "Umm, it's marinated,"...thanks, but how is it cooked?

Starters were fairly good, especially the African breads, chutneys, dips, and fried plaintain chips. The merguez sausage dish was good, and I, too, enjoyed the corn mash it was served atop. I also liked the prep for the pork belly - as BryanZ notes above, nice to have pork belly prepared in a crispier style, though no jerk was evident to my taste...green plaintain slaw was nice. But there sure was a lot of really sweet sauce on that plate. Lamb meatballs were just okay, tasting a bit "muttony," though I don't know if that's a bad thing. Chickpea dumplings (as Nathan describes, really gnocchi) were also fairly lame, with so many competing flavors (but not textures as everything was kinda soft and baby-foody) on the plate that the chickpea flavor barely comes through. Fish and chips (in a pot - why?) fries were ok, but the fish was barely edible, being both greasy and watery at the same time. Side dish of smoked greens smelled and tasted of quite a heavy hand with the liquid smoke...awful. And one of our desserts was decent, with a really tasty bread pudding.

Well, Nathan said go while it's still good - I think the window may have closed, but maybe when the chef's in the house, making rounds of the VIP tables, the place is a bit better. For now, your money is better spent at lots of other places.

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

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Asking you to order all at once is in direct contrast to what our server recommended. She highly encouraged/upsold us on the first column of "pre-appetizers". I think, however, due to the lag in that first round of food coming out (and subsequent even pacing) that she didn't put the order in until she took our entire order.

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