Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Haute African Cuisine in New York

Merkato 55, which features such African haute cuisine as the shrimp piri piri at left, has become a hot ticket in the what's next culinary mecca of Manhattan's Meatpacking District. Though New York Magazine notes sixty New York African restaurants, they're all pretty much local, ethnic, or have menus limited to a single country or region of the African continent. The majority feature Senegalese or Moroccan cuisine. Washington D.C. is home to numerous African restaurants on a similar scale. Most specialize in Ethiopian/Eritrean or West African cuisine. In New York as well as D.C., foodies have been flocking to these places for decades. Could the time be right for the evolution of America's acceptance of African delicacies to reach a new level? My hunch is that this will happen sooner rather than later and ultimately make its way to Baltimore.

I'm not able to imagine anyone more apropos for having a hand in launching such a trend than Marcus Samuelson, the chef behind Merkato 55. He's the Ethiopian born, Swedish raised owner/executive chef of Aquavit, Manhattan's high end mecca for Scandinavian cuisine. In recent years Samuelson traveled several times to Africa to explore his culinary roots as well as to research and later author Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa, John Wiley & Sons, 2006. What better encore for such an effort than Mercato 55?
It's located in the thick of Meatpacking District action at 55 Gansevoort Street. My son Alex and I had no problem getting reservations on two hours notice this past Monday night, perhaps because a lot of people didn't feel like spending and eating when earlier in the day our nation's financial system had edged ever closer to collapse. For that matter, it wouldn't have surprised me had we tried and been able to score a table at Babbo.
Pursuant to expectations, the decor at Mercato 55 proved intriguing to say the least. I was particularly impressed by the small bar that appeared perfect for accommodating solo diners like myself when unsuccessful at enlisting similarly adventurous dining companions while traveling.
A Karakaraba, mixed with Cazadores tequila, St. Germain liqueur, pineapple, Canton ginger, and lime was just the cocktail over which to unwind. It was followed by the piri piri shrimp appetizer pictured at the beginning of this post. Though consisting of but two shrimp, the combination of ingredients and flavors far surpassed any other piri piri dish I'd previously experienced anywhere. Alex opted for the tuna kitfo (tartar), pictured at right. The tuna was put together with chocolate, lemon, and who knows what else, then perched upon an avocado puree. I was amazed: the most delectable piri piri and the most pleasing raw tuna of my life within a half hour.

Berbere rack of lamb is a favorite recipe to prepare at home and was my choice as an entree. It's pictured at left and the only item with which Alex and I were less than happy. The idea was for us to share our respective entrees. We would have liked to have been able to enjoy at least two chops apiece, preferably three or four. To me "rack of lamb," when priced at $34, means more than three one-inch thick rib chops. Even worse, the level of Berbere flavoring seemed less than sufficient. Alex's entree was the shrimp and triggerfish preparation pictured at right. Like so much (except for the rack of lamb) that we enjoyed at Merkato 55, the magic was in the seasoning.
While Africa is a big continent with plenty of flavor profiles, I recognized most that were associated with our meal. They recalled relishes, sauces, rubs and other specialty food items I've sampled over many years at NASFT International Fancy Food Shows. If only more such products were available in Baltimore, or better yet a restaurant that could introduce us to a few of these wonderful tastes.