Jordan Messan Benissan brought a whole new range of cuisine to Searsport when he opened Mé Lon Togo last summer: sweet potatoes and plantains tossed in apple-cider vinegar; chicken in peanut sauce made with tomato, onion, garlic, ginger, anise seed, and cayenne; tapioca pudding cooked in lemongrass broth.
A member of the Ewe people, Benissan hails from Togo, where he trained in traditional drumming. He came to the U.S. to study French literature but instead wound up traveling the country doing African drumming demos. Since 1999, he’s been a music instructor at Colby College. In Waterville, he started experimenting in the kitchen. “I realized that I really missed food from home,” he says. “I tried to cook what I’d learned from my mother, and after a while, I started to think wow, this really tastes good.”
The food at Mé Lon Togo (translation: I Love Togo) is modern West African, influenced by waves of Italian, German, and French colonialism. “We adopted some cooking techniques from Europe, but we kept our ingredients,” Benissan explains. Although the menu features a few European dishes, like monkfish ossobuco and a duck de Provence, the most exciting options are the ones Benissan grew up with, including his personal favorite, gumbo: fluffy white rice buried under a mountain of crab, chicken, beef, onion, peppers, and okra, cooked and spiced until the flavors meld into a rich, complex whole.
The cozy 1800s space has low-beamed ceilings, hardwood floors, and a soft glow from flickering candles. The look is pretty classic midcoast, but Benissan accented the dining room with a few West African flourishes: a mask hanging here, a shield there, and in the corner, of course, the drums that he still occasionally finds time to play.
375 East Main St., Searsport. 207-872-9146.
June 2020 update: Since this story first ran, Benissan opened a Mé Lon Togo location in Waterville, which he’s now raising money to re-open in the wake of the statewide pandemic shutdown.