post Shaken and Stirred

March 19th, 2008

Filed under: Life Style — Lissan Magazine @ 22:55

Following the Rum Into the Wild

THINK Africa. Now think cocktails. Now admit you just pulled a muscle. “It’s kind of a clean map,” said Marcus Samuelsson, the chef best known for his work at Aquavit in New York. Mr. Samuelsson’s latest venture is Merkato 55, a pan-African restaurant and lounge that opened this month on Gansevoort Street in the meatpacking district of Manhattan.

Photo: Joe Fornabaio for The New York Times

EXOTIC TASTES The Kinka is more brooding and mysterious than your typical meatpacking district fruit punch.

It’s an exultant, theatrical spot — the big-lot antithesis to what Mr. Samuelsson, who was born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden, calls the “mom and pop places” that have been the primary loci of African food in New York.

The feeling of the restaurant, which sprawls across two levels and is festooned with silk-screen prints and basket lamps and acres of raw wood and clay, might be glibly likened to Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park, if Mr. Samuelsson, and his menu, weren’t so earnest. But can earnestness like his survive in the meatpacking district?

A proven survival component in the area is booze. Mr. Samuelsson is betting on rum, which he said was the liquor that’s “always at the center of the African diaspora.”

There’s a slew of infused rums that are served on their own (neat) in the same way Mr. Samuelsson features infused aquavits at Aquavit: date-infused, curry leaf-infused, lemon grass-infused.

Rum also rules the cocktail menu, which was developed with Junior Merino, a beverage consultant and former bartender at the Modern.

The Takada, for instance, corrals all of Mr. Samuelsson’s influences, combining rum with aquavit and ginger beer along with pink grapefruit juice and litchi purée, while the Yabara pairs rum with a more Eastern mélange of Lillet Rouge, hibiscus, mango tea and lime.

The drink names are derived from African dances. This works spectacularly well with the Ding Ding, a mixture of rosemary-infused cachaça (rum’s burlier cousin), aguardiente, ginger beer and lime, but less so with the Larakaraka (tequila, elderflower liqueur, pineapple juice, ginger liqueur, lime), which I overheard one patron despair of trying to pronounce and instead blurt out, “Hakuna matata,” the signature phrase from “The Lion King.” The Swahili phrase can be translated to mean “no worries.” Proving the point, the correct drink arrived anyway.

I took a shine to the Kinka: easy to order, easier to drink. In the Kinka, Bacardi Gold rum meets Averna, a rootsy, herbal Italian amaro, with tamarind concentrate adding some earthy, exotic sweetness and blood orange purée and lemon juice adding citric tang.

It’s a suave mixture, way more brooding and mysterious than your typical meatpacking district fruit punch, and a boon companion to Mr. Samuelsson’s spiced cuisine. Is it actually African? An academic drinker might say no.

Another drinker, however, might smile and say merely, “Hakuna matata.”

Kinka Adapted From Merkato 55

1 ½ ounces Bacardi Gold rum

½ ounce Averna liqueur

1 ounce tamarind concentrate *

1 ounce freshly squeezed blood orange juice

½ ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice.

Shake ingredients with ice in a cocktail shaker. Strain into ice-filled rocks glass.

Yield: 1 serving

Source: The New York Times

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