City Paper is not for tourists
Sometimes, cleverness backfires. Sometimes, instead of dazzling you with a range of influence and a wealth of allusion, it only reveals unintended ironies.
Take the name of owner David Winer’s Merkádo Kitchen—his third restaurant and second in the rapidly evolving Logan Circle. The clever substitution of a K in the Spanish word for “market” accomplishes two things: It alludes to the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Mikado, underscoring the strong Asian presence on the menu, while also subtly alerting diners to the fact that, although the menu is loaded with such dishes as paella and seviche and nachos, this is most definitely not a Latin restaurant.
It’d be hard to come up with a more elegant term to convey the collision of cultures that makes up the restaurant. Unfortunately, the spiritedness and clean execution of the name vanish at the table, and you’re left wishing the creators had devoted as much time to the kitchen as to conceptualizing the moniker.
At this point, you’re probably expecting to cast your eyes on a predictable swipe at fusion. You’re not going to get it. For one thing, almost all cooking is a kind of fusion, the merging of disparate styles and methods that occurs as cultures mix and evolve. For another, when it’s good, fusion can be dazzlingly seductive. The reason it hasn’t faded from view like so many other food fads is that it can work wonders on the bored and the jaded and the preternaturally adventurous. At least until the novelty wears off. Or the first dish arrives.
At Merkádo, where the mania for mélange extends even to the look—Japanese lanterns, ticking fans that recall a South American cafe—the mix-and-match approach is established from the outset. A basket of fried tortilla rounds is brought to the table, with specific instructions from one of the upbeat servers to add a few shakes of hot sauce “to bring it up,” followed by a few shakes of ponzu—a Japanese dipping sauce—on the next bite “to cool it down.”
It’s more interesting than good. For one thing, the rounds are stale, and there’s no point in dressing up something you’re not going to eat. Besides, sweet ponzu on corn tortillas? The nachos are no better, even though the chips are freshly fried. Actually, they’re sheened with grease—the server tilts the plate as he sets it down, sending a stream of orange-colored oil onto the table. And the cheese, sad to say, is congealed. What moisture remains comes from a creamy jalapeño sauce drizzled over the top.
Through the first couple of visits, I thought I’d arrived at a general principle for ordering: the less fussed-with the dish, the better. This usually meant: the less fussed-with the fish. Chef Edward Kim most recently presided over the well-regarded sushi restaurant Soigné in Baltimore, and the directness and simplicity that sushi imposes upon its practitioners were plainly evident in the tuna tartare: diced raw tuna slicked with sesame oil and molded into an upright bullet. Likewise, the Scallop Tiradito was clean and cool, a plate that would not be out of place at one of the city’s more interesting sushi bars. And a sweet-glazed salmon perched atop a mound of sticky rice, ringed with a gravy-like miso broth, and scattered with chopped green onion was so good as to remind you why chefs are tempted to experiment in the first place.
The rule did not hold. The trio of seviches was dreadful, the bits of fish too warm and soft, the citrus soak too sweet by half. A noodle bowl was laden with decent-quality mussels and shrimp, but the udon was gummy and the dashi broth lacked depth. A similarly watery broth undermined an otherwise appealing chigae, a Korean stew laced with tofu and brightened with snow peas and red pepper. The fish cakes, made from shrimp and crab, were mealy and dull. The omnipresent squiggle of wasabi mayo, which topped this plate as well as a platter of greasy shrimp and crab spring rolls, added injury
I had high hopes for the crispy whole fish. There are few foods more satisfying to eat, assuming the frying has been handled right; this one was a botched job. The thing looked incinerated. Picking the desiccated bits of flesh from the carcass, I could only think, The poor bastard died
The servers, a bright, knowledgeable, efficient bunch, seem to be aware of the deficiencies. I was twice directed indirectly away from certain dishes—wisely, I might add, because on my third and final visit I went ahead and ordered what I’d previously been warned away from. The Cuban pork shank was proof that you can spoil something even if you slow-cook: The meat was tender, all right, but oddly unsucculent. The Puerto Rican Paella was teeming with plump, juicy shrimp and thick coins of chorizo, but was a mush of overcooked rice and chili-sauce-spiked cream.
Great meals transport you; disappointing meals leave you to turn things over in your head. Among the large, painted faces that adorn the wall nearest the kitchen, for example, are a Latino man and an Asian woman. Their eyes are closed. In shame? They bring to mind The Mikado: a show of bright and lively surfaces, yes, but also as cringe-inducing an example of East-meets-West as they come.
Merkádo Kitchen, 1443 P St. NW,
(202) 229-0018.—Todd Kliman
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Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Pilar Vergara.