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Feb 27, 2008 06:28 PM

Merkato 55 - long

Just got back from an enjoyable evening at Merkato 55. The decor was warm and attractive - dark wood with African accents such as lamps made of thin strands of the small white shells that you often see in African jewelry. The upstairs room, where my friend and I sat, was dominated by two enormous bunches of pussy willow branches jutting out of rustic vases.

Our waitress was perky and endearingly eager to please. She described in detail every item on the menu except for the sides - the breads, chutneys, small plates, entrees, etc. We found this unusual and a bit tedious since much of the information was already written. We ordered (much of it based on CH recs - thanks!) the African bread basket, apple coconut yogurt, falafel, lobster salad, chickpea dumplings, lamb meatballs and a side of collards, in case we didn't get enough veggies.

The bread basket came with a spiced corn bread, sesame coated pitas, and a zatar bread. The zatar bread was the best with one side nicely crisped, and the inside chewy. The other two were tasty but ordinary. The apple yogurt was a sweet accompaniment. The falafels were delicate and flavorful, but not special enough to justify $7.

The lobster salad was a treat. There was a decent amount of tender meat mixed with chopped vegetables such as water cress and scallions, and a creamy, slightly nutty base, and topped with a lobster claw and a wedge of grapefruit. Unfortunately, I hate scallions, so I couldn't enjoy the dish as fully as I'd have liked, but it was a minor deterrent.

Next came the chickpea dumplings and lamb meatballs. The chickpea dumplings were fluffly, like good gnocci and nicely charred, so that each bite had a flavor of toasted cumin. They were tossed with swiss chard, smoked chickpeas, tiny cubes of salty potatoes, small round flakes of a grain I couldn't identify, and some herb with a floral flavor. It was a dish with many layers of textures and flavors - great comfort food. The lamb meatballs were also good. They were served on a bed of couscous with a tomato-based sauce, and a fried egg. The meatballs had a strong lamb flavor, and were very firm in a pleasing way. The best part was having runny egg on each bite of meatball. There were also currants in the sauce to provide a fruity contrast to the acidity of the sauce and the richness of the meat.

We were too full for dessert. The service was attentive and friendly from the hostess to the busboys. I'd like to try the pistachio lassi some time. Thanks again Chowhounds for your dish recommendations - they were spot on.

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  1. Thanks for the report. I've heard the "overpriced" criticism thrown about regarding this place. Other than the falafel, did the dishes justify the bill?

    1 Reply
    1. re: jakew8

      The lobster salad at $17 wasn't a bad deal since there was a comparable amount of meat to a lobster roll, which run at least $20 in NYC. I didn't mind the prices in general b/c I found the portions sufficient and I was happy w/my overall experience.

    2. Four of us went out to dinner there last night and really enjoyed it. I'll get to the food in a minute, but what really stood out was that Marcus Samuelsson came by after the waiter cleared our dinner plates to ask how our meal was and it wasn't just the usual polite conversation. So while some reviews I've seen doubted whether he was even at Merkato 55, given everything else he's got going on, he was there last night and was incredibly warm, welcoming and totally unpretentious, especially since we don't look like the typical MPD crowd. We sat upstairs in a banquette and while we wish there was a bit more space between tables -- I hate have to move the table to use the bathroom because there's not enough spce to get out -- it surprisingly didn't bother us as much as usual, perhaps because of the food.

      Now about the food: we knew we were in for a treat when the busboy brought over some olives that had a really unique taste to them -- slightly citrusy, but with some allspice and other spices we couldn't quite identify. At least for us, olives have become a fairly reliable indicator: when they're boring, the meal is likely to follow suit. Only two of us ordered mixed drinks -- the one with the chili pepper whose name I can't recall was a hit. But another one with blood oranges and tamarind that was promised to be sweet and sour tasted like a bad variation on a screwdriver. We sent that one back and got another chili pepper one.

      We had the bread basket and other than the pita, which seemed almost out of place, the breads were interesting and tasty. We got the apple coconut dip and shrimp fritters (from the small plates) to go with it and the dip was really tasty. I thought the shrimp fritters were too salty, but the other three in my group loved them. We then split two large plates, 1 small plate and 1 side: the snapper in banana leaf was excellent: sweet and savory with the fish cooked perfectly. We also had the chickpea dumplings and the lobster salad -- both of which are described above and both of which phenomenal. We didn't try any of the meat dishes because two of us are vegetarians.

      To me the real star was the lassi on the desert menu, which, like the olives that we started with, had some unexpected flavors that just popped in your mouth. The lassi, which we split between 3 of the 4 of us, also showed how helpful the wait-staff can be: we asked for some separate glasses to split the drink and we didn't get some attitude, like we've seen at other MPD restaurants, including Spice Bar.

      Overall, a great experience, even without the warm welcome from Samuelsson. I can only imagine how much better they'll get once they iron out a few kinks.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Mooshi

        Met Samuelsson once at Aquavit--truly a delightful person. Glad to hear the good reviews as I plan to go within the next month.

      2. Went on Saturday night -- 2 couples -- and we all loved it!!! It was so refreshing to have some interesting flavors, a welcome departure from a "market fresh entree prepared simply." It was so great to have some truly tasty food!!

        My favorite dish was the snapper on banana leaf in broth. The shrimp starter was very good too -- don't let them take the plate away too quickly b/c you will want to sop up the extra sauce with the delicious za'atar bread. The service was a bit over-zealous -- they kept taking our plates away when there was still a bite left .

        I had the ginger-beer mojito, so good I had two (which I rarely do.)

        Desserts were good but not too memorable ... but everything else was stellar!!

        1. I was at Merkato 55 a few nights ago and had a great time. We started with the bread basket and a papaya peanut sambal. The sambal wasn't spectacular - it reminded me a little of Thai papaya salad but without all the spice and zing. The bread basket, however, was excellent. Unlike everyone else my favorite was the meali spiced cornbread - I asked the waitress where it was from because the spices reminded me of Ethiopian berbere. She went to check and said that it was from "all over Africa" - which seems a little dubious because I've been to parts of Africa and have never seen it.

          I had the lamb kefta meatballs which were very well executed. I liked how the lamb permeated the entire dish! The fried egg was a nice touch and deliciously gooey. My dining partner had the jerk pork belly which I guess is a tribute to the African descendents in the Caribbean? It was pretty fatty but crisp and tasty. We had an avocado shake (fairly common throughout Ethiopia) which was phenomenal.

          Service was attentive throughout, although I noticed at the next table that their server didn't tell them that you really should be using your hands to eat the doro with the injera.

          1 Reply
          1. re: yt28

            Since I didn't see any comments about the food we ordered, thought I would add my 2 cents. Merkato 55 did not disappoint, rather one of the best meals I have had in a very long time.

            We ordered the pickled sardines. Sardines had a wonderful firm texture and the onions with a bit of chili pepper had just the right bite to add to the fish. Next was the goat (in the pot) entree which was flavorful and very, very tender meat. The okra (which I usually don't like) had absorbed enough of the unfamiliar flavors of the sauce that it was still crunchy but very tasty. The best entree we had was the Guniea Hen with carmelized onions and Meyer lemon. Cherry tomatoes topped the dish which had a slightly tomato base. I couldn't identify all the flavors, but it was rich and flavorful (?cumin) and the onions were perfectly sweet and soft.

            I loved all my dessert choices: passion fruit sorbet was creamy (yet non-dairy) and very, very tart. Just the way I like it, like eating the fruit itself. The coffee custard was smooth, somewhat thin, with coffee crumbles on top and tasted very much like coffee without being too sugary sweet. The chocolate sambosa was just a slight bit greasy with the frying, but the milk chocolate center oozed into my mouth with the greatest of flavors.

            All in all a fantastic meal. Service was a bit uneven - very helpful with menu selections, yet somewhat slow with taking orders and bringing the check. On the other hand, a bit too anxious to pick up our dishes (I wanted every last bit). Noise level at a typical NY level - loud. Agree with previous posters about the tables. A bit too close, though the better to see what everyone was choosing.

            We'll definitely be back. Tremendous food. JPB