WATERVILLE — Two years after opening a restaurant on the Maine coast, Jordan Benissan is gearing up to bring his popular West African-European dishes to Waterville.
A music professor at Colby College, Benissan has called the city home for 18 years.
“I have lived for quite some time in Waterville, and I miss having the community,” he said. “In Searsport, I see a lot of tourists in the summer and some local people in the Midcoast area. But I don’t see a lot of familiar faces, and I miss that sense of community.”
At Mé Lon Togo Bistro, which Benissan plans to open mid-May, guests will eat at antique wooden tables that mimic the style of a family dining room.
“My vision is to have a place where people feel like they are at home,” he said. “I want them to have the comfort of home and a relaxed atmosphere to enjoy a fine dining experience and also enjoy the finest cuisine from Togo, West Africa and Europe.”
The building that will soon house Mé Lon Togo, located at 220 Main St., was formerly home to Rita’s Catering and before that Flo’s Flower Cart. The remnants of a greenhouse are still visible in the main dining area, which connects to an open kitchen, bar area and second dining space. At full capacity, Benissan estimated he would be able to serve 50 people but added that he will ease into the operation by serving dinners on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and will grow from there. In the summertime, people will be able to eat outside on a wrap-around porch.
Benissan hopes to bring a combination of the traditional cooking skills he learned from his mother in his home country of Togo and various techniques and styles he picked up working in American, French and Italian restaurants after immigrating to the United States in the late 1980s. He said Togolese and French cuisine influenced each other in the 1900s when the French colonized the African country.
“The reason why Togolese cuisine became popular, especially among Europeans, is because we combine our own ingredients, spices, meat, poultry and vegetables and keep the originality of those ingredients. But at the same time, the cuisine also has Franco influences because Togo was once a French colony,” Benissan explained. “A lot of French restaurants employed Togolese chefs, and the chefs who worked in the French restaurants and hotels incorporated French techniques in Togolose cuisine.”
He said he thinks Mé Lon Togo will add to the diversity of cuisine in Waterville, which has become increasingly international with the recent opening of the Greek restaurant Opa, the Venezuelan dishes prepared by Acadia Cakes’ Nilda Wolman and longstanding establishments like Temple Street’s Lebanese Cuisine.
“It seems like America is beginning to open up more and more to international cuisine, and there are a lot of fine cuisine from different places you don’t get to hear of or see. So what happens — people don’t think much of those places when it comes to fine dining and cuisine,” Benissan said. “I hope this place will open up people’s minds that, a place like Africa, we have a lot of fine cuisine.”
Garvan Donegan, senior economic development specialist at the Central Maine Growth Council, noted that he thinks the success of “spectacular ethnic restaurants (in Waterville) illustrates … our growth in population and broadening of cultures and tastes.”
Benissan hopes the unique Togolese-European offerings at Mé Lon Togo will encourage more people to travel to Waterville and experience the central Maine area.
Donegan added that the restaurant will have a positive impact on the local economy.
“It is exciting to be adding Mé Lon Togo to the increasingly diverse culinarily options in Waterville’s growing foodie scene,” he said. “At a foundational level, restaurants and food service and accommodation businesses are powerful to the local economy because they help fulfill basic needs and attract residents, visitors, employees, entrepreneurs, students and downtown users… (It) also supports a significant amount of employment within our urban setting.”
Benissan will serve as the head chef at his new restaurant but plans to hire five people in the coming weeks as prep cooks, servers and dishwashers. To start, his menu will be the same as that of his Searsport restaurant, which also shares the name Mé Lon Togo Bistro. Frequently ordered items include West African gumbo and chicken in peanut sauce.
“Gumbo is almost like a stew, which combines herbs, spices, vegetables, smoked meat and seafood,” he described. “It’s a very unique dish. … Gumbo is the original African name for okra, which was brought to America by the slaves. So in (America), the dish took the name of the vegetable itself.”
Benissan travels to an international market in Bangor and, occasionally, to one in Worcester to purchase spices and other ingredients for his dishes. These additions help dishes that may seem ordinary, like his chicken in peanut sauce, stand out.
“It’s a smooth, very flavorful combination of fresh, ground peanut with spices and cooked with the chicken along with fresh tomatoes and tomato paste, slowly, to the point where everything melts together so well,” said Benissan of the meal. “The first time you have it, you will be mesmerized by the distinct combinations, and you will always be hungry for it.”
Drink specials include a palm wine cocktail mixed with tequila, Grand Marnier, limoncello, champagne, lemon and lime juice; Gbe ve ve, which he described as as similar to a mojito; and Akpetesi, a spicy drink made with vodka, ginger, habanero pepper, avocado pit, limoncello, lemon and lime juice. The latter drinks are named in Benissan’s mother tongue of Ewe.
Though Benissan is still decorating Mé Lon Togo, there are odes to his homeland inside and out. West African masks hang on the walls. The door frames are painted cobalt blue and bright purple.
“The significance of the colors — it really represents how vibrant life is in Africa, because everywhere you go, you will see bold, bright colors,” he said. “It tells you how vibrant life is in Africa. You don’t really get a fair representation of African from the media, unless you’ve been there.”
He said that he hopes that he can eventually introduce a community-style dinner at Mé Lon Togo, similar to the way meals are enjoyed in Togo.
“It would be so much fun,” Benissan said. “In Africa, that’s how we eat, altogether as a family and a community. Each dish is in an individual bowl. … I hope many people will be open to that kind of idea.”