The pandemic closed Togolese drummer/chef Jordan Benissan's Waterville restaurant — so he opened another one.
Clockwise from left: red snapper; duck
de Provence nods
to colonial culinary influences in West Africa; fetri dessi is beef, shrimp, crab, salmon, and chicken, simmered with okra, peppers, and onions; seafood stew.
The space has private nooks.
Chef-owner Jordan Benissan
The charming patio
By Jesse Ellison | Photographed by Dave Waddell
At Mé Lon Togo, in Camden, a dish called gari fotu uses a sharp, herbaceous tomato sauce to help meld smoked shrimp, fried egg, and grits made from manioc, a root vegetable that’s a staple of West African diets. The result is earthy and bright and, as with much of the restaurant’s menu, unlike anything else served in Maine.
Chef-owner Jordan Benissan is from Togo, a sliver of a country on the Gulf of Guinea, where he grew up practicing traditional drumming techniques. He came to Maine in the 1990s to teach music at Colby College. Living in Waterville and craving both a sense of community and the food of his childhood, he started dabbling in cooking at home, then hosting dinner parties, which grew and grew as word of his West African feasts spread.
Three years ago, with the encouragement of friends, and a small loan from one of them, he opened the first installment of Mé Lon Togo — “I Love Togo” — in a ramshackle former tavern along Route 1 in Searsport. The place was rarely packed, but it became enough of a destination for midcoast eaters that Benissan was able to open another location, in Waterville, last year.
Soon, the pandemic arrived, and Benissan was denied a Paycheck Protection Program loan. Amid an economic downturn that hit restaurants hard — and Black-owned small businesses particularly hard — he closed the Searsport location indefinitely (although hopes to eventually use it as a brunch venue), and he couldn’t make rent at the Waterville location. With his Waterville landlord threatening eviction, he decided to close for good. Then, Maine food Instagrammer Jake Cryan (eatingthroughtheseacoast) and some Portland restaurateurs launched a GoFundMe to help revive one of Maine’s few Black-owned kitchens and one of its rare outposts for African cooking (among the GoFundMe organizers were Peter and Orenda Hale, who subsequently closed their own restaurant, Drifters Wife).
In less than two weeks, the campaign raised more than $16,000, enough to help Benissan plan a new restaurant in downtown Camden. “It was remarkable,” he says. “I was about to see my dream collapse and fall apart, but then it turned out that, out of that whole thing came a new beginning, a new birth.”
Mé Lon Togo
56 Elm St., Camden. 207-872-9146.
Four-course prix-fixe menu $40. Appetizers $5, entrées $25 a la carte.
The Tusker beer comes from Kenya, on Africa’s opposite coast from Togo, and the cocktail recipes come from Benissan’s own creative impulses: the Akpetesi — “boozy drink” in his native Ewe — mixes ginger, avocado pit, vodka, limoncello, Grand Marnier, prosecco, St-Germaine, and a lip-tingling dash of cayenne pepper.
Music prof Benissan brings his affinity for beats to the restaurant by hosting bands, most often on alternating Saturdays.
He spent seven days a week converting what had been a furniture showroom. He painted the floors bright purple (a nod to the eye-catching trim at the original Searsport location) and the walls a warm terra-cotta. He moved big wooden tables, chairs, rugs, and an entire bar from Waterville, and he added a small patio, tucked between an ell in the building and the neighboring Montessori school playground. Befitting the social-distancing imperative of the times, the indoor space is roomy, some 2,000 square feet, and has several nooks that Benissan made feel like private rooms.
When he opened in late July, a blues band played outside, and his small team of servers was running the same four-course prix-fixe dinners Benissan served at his other two locations. Azi dessi, tender pieces of chicken in tomato-and-peanut sauce served over rice, was deeply savory and comforting on a cool evening. So too was one of the night’s specials, a whole red snapper, pan-seared and finished in spicy Creole-style étouffée.
Benissan doesn’t rush the service, and he’s apt to pull up a chair to chat for a while between courses. Visitors will quickly realize that he’s trying to do more than just feed them. Around Maine, he notes, African food occupies the slightest of niches. East Africa is lightly represented in a few Ethiopian and Somali restaurants in Portland and Lewiston, where immigrant communities have formed, but throughout Maine, West Africa is a missing culinary history. “But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” Benissan says. He enjoys talking with customers about food anthropology and how his cooking reflects West Africa’s indigenous and colonial influences, as well as how he came to represent West African cuisine here. “I’m an educator,” he says, “and I just realized that this is another way for me to educate.”