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For a little over a decade, chef Marcus Samuelsson has revolutionized the way New Yorkers view — and consume — Scandinavian food with his much lauded outpost Aquavit. This month, he looks poised to work similar magic for a different continent at his just-opened Pan-African restaurant Merkato 55. But Samuelsson pleads modesty at the suggestion of a culinary Midas touch.
“I’ve never been good at catching trends,” he says with a resigned chuckle. “I’m usually too slow.” Certainly Merkato 55, a bi-level Meatpacking District eatery, has been a labor of love for the Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised Samuelsson. Touted as New York City’s first ever Pan-African restaurant, it is a deeply personal project born from his desire to uncover his roots in Africa. So the fact that industry gurus have lately pronounced small, intimate restaurants to be “in” and large, theatrical ones to be “out” doesn’t exactly make him happy. Nor does the recent flack he has received from restaurant bloggers, who’ve reported the uncomfortable fact that he won’t actually be behind the stove for the first week after opening. (His executive chef, Andrea Bergquist, will be in charge while Samuelsson oversees the opening of a new Aquavit in Stockholm.)
“I’ve worked for more or less 10 years to open this restaurant,” says Samuelsson, explaining that the regrettable timing was due to construction delays with Merkato and his contractual obligations in Sweden. And as for diners’ recent affection for eating in 28-seat cubbyholes like Little Owl? “All I can say is I know food, and I can only go with my gut.”
True enough, Samuelsson’s instincts have served him well. Although he’s just 37, he’s one of New York’s most established top chefs, having made his name at Aquavit at the tender age of 24, when he became the youngest toque to earn three stars from The New York Times. Before Samuelsson, of course, New York diners had only the vaguest notion of Scandinavian cuisine beyond herring and meatballs in cream sauce. Aquavit, which recently moved to a new location and celebrated its 20th anniversary, opened their eyes to the possibilities of a new cuisine.
With Merkato 55 — named after the famous market in Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa — Samuelsson is hoping to do the same for African fare. The first floor features what he calls a kidogo bar (the word is Swahili for “small bits”), where patrons can order African-style tapas, including falafels, fritters and a variety of breads and chutneys. Upstairs in the sprawling dining room, the menu draws inspiration from Morocco to Ethiopia to South Africa, with dishes like berbere-crusted rack of lamb and shrimp piri piri. The restaurant is located around the corner from Pastis, in the 7,000-plus square-foot Gansevoort Street space previously home to the short-lived megabistro Sascha.
“The energy of Africa is that you eat together,” says Samuelsson, who was adopted by a Swedish couple at age three after his family fell victim to a tuberculosis epidemic. “I want this to be a lively, energetic restaurant, and you need a lot of square feet to convey that.”
The ever-dapper, boyishly handsome Samuelsson has always had an energetic social life himself. A celebrity chef before the age of celebrity chefs, he was known to show up at parties in the mid-Nineties with a model on each arm. He posed nearly nude in an infamous Vita-Mix blender ad, and even made People magazine’s top five of the nation’s top 100 most eligible bachelors in 2000. (These days, he’s relatively settled down: He shares his Harlem townhouse with his girlfriend of three years, Elite model Gate Haile.)
The buzz and exposure doesn’t hurt, as Samuelsson’s network of high-profile friends has already previewed Merkato 55. John Legend had his 29th birthday party there for 70 friends in early December, and Gourmet magazine held its holiday party in the unfinished space.
While the menu at Merkato 55 is admittedly exotic (a glossary for those unfamiliar with terms like “kitfo” and “yassa” is included), Samuelsson says he has full confidence in his patrons’ taste buds. “New York is made up of people from all parts of the world. They’re not afraid to try something new.”