When the breeze blows in from the ocean, Jordan Messan Benissan can, for a moment, feel transported from coastal Maine to his home nation of Togo, the small Western African country wedged in between Ghana and Benin.
At Me Lon Togo, his newly opened Togolese restaurant Benissan located on Route 1 in Searsport, things are a bit idyllic both inside and out. On warm, sunny days, he throws open the windows to let the seaside air in. His staff picks wildflowers to arrange in vintage glass vases for display on tabletops and on the long bar, handmade out of reclaimed wood. Music softly plays in the background — music is always on, since food and music are inextricably linked for Benissan.
Togo may be thousands of miles away from Searsport, Maine, but when Benissan is in the kitchen at Me Lon Togo, frying up plantains or simmering chicken in peanut sauce, the distance shrinks.
“I’ve always felt more at home on the coast,” said Benissan, who grew up in Togo’s laid-back capital, Lome, a coastal city renowned for its beaches. “That’s why I wanted to open a restaurant somewhere on the coast in Maine. It felt like home.”
Benissan, who has lived in Maine for 18 years and teaches African drumming in the music department at Colby College, comes from a rich tradition of both food and music. As a child in Togo, his family valued traditional arts. He was trained by master drummers. Life events both big and small in Togo are celebrated with music and dance — and with lots of food.
“There is always music, and there is always food,” said Benissan. “A lot of what I cook here is what we eat there. This is what you would have.”
Benissan came to the U.S. in the 1980s to get a master’s degree in French literature at the University of Oklahoma and to improve his English enough to come back to Togo to teach it.
While in Oklahoma, however, his prodigious skills as a drummer quickly became apparent — so much so that, in addition to playing in a jazz ensemble and teaching other students African drumming, Benissan changed his major from French to ethnomusicology, the study of the cultural and social roots and implications of music.
In 1999, Benissan came to Maine for a drumming residency at the Center for Cultural Exchange, a now-defunct cultural nonprofit in Portland. That residency led to teaching gigs at both Bates and Colby and in public and private schools around the state, something Benissan still does year-round. He’s also released four albums, and performed with the likes of Bela Fleck and renowned Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji.
In his classes at Colby, Benissan every semester cooks a Togolese feast for his students. Friends and colleagues got used to Benissan cooking them dinner, too. In fact, cooking Togolese food for people became something Benissan loved as much as teaching them Togolese music.
“People really loved my food. Food from Togo has a lot of influences — French, Italian, German — so it’s not hard to connect with it,” he said. “I began to think that a restaurant would be something I would want to do. It’s been a dream for a long time.”
Benissan began pursuing that dream in earnest last year. He originally wanted to open in Wiscasset, but after an unsuccessful search for a property, he kept looking up and down the coast. He eventually stumbled across the historic 19th century building at 375 East Main St. in Searsport — the former home of Nickerson Tavern, a restaurant that in the 1980s and early 1990s was a highly popular fine-dining destination. After closing in the mid-1990s, however, the building has lain empty, slowly falling into disrepair.
Benissan, however, was sold, and in January of this year began renovations, including rebuilding the kitchen and rewiring the entire building. In the spring, he painted the dining room an earthy rust brown, and painted the exterior deep blue and brilliant purple.
“After I did that, it definitely turned heads. I wanted it to do that. I wanted it to catch people’s eyes,” he said. “Blue and purple are my favorite colors.”
Me Lon Togo opened July 8. The menu is prix fixe; $40 for a four-course meal, not including beverages. Though offerings will change regularly, a typical menu features an appetizer and salad to start — gently fried plantains and sweet potatoes, for example, followed by a West African-style salad composed of hard-boiled eggs, fresh peas, tomatoes and onions, served over chopped romaine with a tangy vinaigrette and optional fresh sardines.
For an entree, diners can choose from four or five offerings on a given night, which showcase the diverse influences various forces have had on Togolese cuisine. Coq au Vin, a traditional French dish of chicken braised in red wine with mushrooms and bacon, is on the menu, as is a Monkfish Osso Bucco, an Italian-style preparation featuring Maine-caught fish.
For a more traditional Togolese dinner, the West African Chicken in Peanut Sauce is the most popular menu item thus far, said Benissan. The chicken is simmered in a savory, slightly spicy sauce made from hand-ground peanuts, tomatoes, onions and an array of spices, and served on white rice. And for something that perfectly illustrates Benissan’s interest in the intersection of cultures — West African, European and American — try the West African Gumbo. Though gumbo is most associated with the American South, it’s a dish that has its foundation in West Africa, and Benissan makes it with a flair for both, combining beef, shrimp and chicken with local salmon and crab meat, slowly cooked with peppers, okra, onions, garlic and spices.
For dessert, Benissan offers things like West African tapioca pudding cooked in lemongrass broth, served with ice cream. There’s an ever-changing cocktail list, inspired by the bars and clubs of West African cities, as well as a small selection of wine and beer.
Food is served on vintage glass plates on an array of funky old tables, and the atmosphere is one of refined yet casual elegance. There’s no hurry at Me Lon Togo; you’re in Benissan’s house, and he’s there to share with you the cuisine and traditions of his homeland.
Right now, the restaurant is only open for dinner starting at 5 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, though Benissan plans to open on Thursdays soon as well. He also hopes to offer special dinners featuring live music, for a true West African experience.
For more information, like Me Lon Togo on Facebook.