"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.