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27-11-2023

Dakar, Chef Merlo and the challenge of quality

The ambitions of the owner of Noliane in Senegal's capital: 'I would like Italians travelling here to find my cuisine as good as it is at home. I am not looking for discounts because we are far away.' Meanwhile he celebrates

Alessandro Merlo and his wife Souadou Niang

Alessandro Merlo and his wife Souadou Niang

The previous  episode ended with these words pronounced by chef and patron Alessandro Merlo 'in Africa, relationships like problems and reality are very different than from Italy.' Piedmontese, from Acqui Terme (Alessandria), his career began as a sommelier and continued as a chef. First, he worked in the United States and France, then for the past seven years he’s been here in Senegal, in the capital Dakar, where he opened boutique hotel The Palms, restaurant Noliane, a café-bistro, also called Noliane, and a wine bar called Ella's, which are the names of his two daughters.

I spent a week here to get to know this reality in depth, and to take a break from Italy in the Week of Italian Cuisine in the World, which started in 2016 and has now reached its eighth edition, with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Two years ago, Cristina Bowerman from Rome was the guest, last Saturday Alessandro Merlo was the star with a buffet and music in his all-palm garden. In a year, who knows, since he has just joined the Ambasciatori del Gusto association and it makes sense for him to call on colleagues from Italy, especially those who give fish a nod and, who knows, even a pizzaiolo because pizza is an important part of the offer.

Pizza Marinara at the Noliane café

Pizza Marinara at the Noliane café

In a country and a continent unfamiliar with the Michelin Guide and the various rankings, what does a restaurateur aim for to get glittering feedback? Senegal and Dakar, despite their close ties with France, have so far not developed their own fine dining, but something is moving, as with the gastronome Sébastien Ripari, a very star-centric cousin, who in mid-November signed his own menu at Noliane.

Saffron risotto with chanterelle mushrooms and barbequed chanterelle mushrooms, chef Alessandro Merlo

Saffron risotto with chanterelle mushrooms and barbequed chanterelle mushrooms, chef Alessandro Merlo

And, under the aegis of our embassy, headed by Giovanni Umberto De Vito, the documentary Yaye Sénégal was presented on the 10th of November. It’s the result of a collaboration between Italian-Brazilian Mauricio Zillo and Senegalese Raoul Coly. Gambero Rosso instead pleaded the cause of extra virgin olive oil thanks to another Italo-Senegalese chef, Omar Ngom, who’s been in Italy for twenty years, starting as a dishwasher and then moving higher and higher. Now he runs restaurant Pappagallo which serves Tuscan cuisine. The other establishments mentioned on the Italian website are Sapori d'Italia, Pizzammore and Au Souvenir, and of course the Noliane, five in all.

Tiramisu as interpreted, well, by Alessandro Merlo

Tiramisu as interpreted, well, by Alessandro Merlo

It is a start, certainly not a finish line. But step by step... And Merlo is not so much looking at the local scene as at Italy. In the absence of stars, hats and forks, his goal is very concrete and equally ambitious: 'I would like Italians who come to Dakar for work or tourism to book a table here and eat so well that they close their eyes and think they have never left. Usually, when we enter an Italian restaurant abroad, it is out of despair, after a few days of not eating spaghetti. Noliane, on the other hand, must be chosen because that particular pasta dish is cooked and seasoned to perfection, because the risotto is executed to perfection. I don't want any discounts, I don't want to hear phrases like 'I dined well, for a place abroad'. There must be an absolute value in judging that is not conditioned by circumstances.'

Woe betide being indulgent with begging tones, rather eyes open and careful analysis, perhaps to realise that Alessandro is the only Italian. All the 62 people working here are Senegalese or, in any case, African, starting from scratch. And, for sure, it is more challenging to serve a good first course than to make a bed. You cannot hide overcooked spaghetti. But there was nothing wrong with either the lobster spaghetti or the saffron snails and Venetian-style liver ragout. Nor in the chicken breasts with mushrooms in escabece as in the various roasted fish, in the raw tuna with burrata and figs, in the thiof, a local fish, smoked and then wrapped in roasted cabbage leaves. The closure with tiramisu is perfect. Noliane: Dahar-Italy.

2. the end

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso


Dal Mondo

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by

Paolo Marchi

born in Milan in March 1955, at Il Giornale for 31 years dividing himself between sports and food, since 2004 he's the creator and curator of Identità Golose.
blog www.paolomarchi.it
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