The slap chips may have been adapted to suit American palates, but New York's nod to SA cuisine hits the home-fire spot
With the 2010 World Cup less than a month away and every participating nationality represented in New York city, the soccer hype is building in this part of the world. Scores of bars and restaurants will be showing the games and offering dishes to tempt every ethnic palate. Hoping to find a South African place to watch the games, we decided to check out the new "Saffer restaurant" on Orchard Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Our group of seven - which included three generations of South Africans - headed downtown looking for a taste of home. As we walked through the open door of Bunny Chow on a warm spring evening, we were greeted with catchy African tunes, which immediately lifted our spirits and got us into a South African vibe.
The restaurant's décor is low-key and rustic; it's eclectic in a way that doesn't quite hang together - wooden tables and chairs, a painting of a young Mandela, a South African flag above a bar painted Ndebele style. With newspaper-covered walls in the upstairs lounge, silverware in metal containers and jam jars as water glasses, it's all part of a shebeen-like atmosphere that owners Manu Dhingra, Paul Simion (the chef) and Ketan Seth were aiming for. They say they chose the Lower East Side for its Bohemian, artsy feel. They also like the opportunity to buy fresh produce and fish at the markets in neighbouring Chinatown.
First up were drinks. One of our group was parched for a South African beer. When none was available he settled for a Kenyan beer, which hit the spot. A (rum-based) Jo'burg punch was one of the South African infused cocktails on tap. The wine list had a decent range of SA wines and the owners plan on expanding the selection (and adding South African beers).
For starters, we chose spicy peri-peri wings ($8), which had a braaied taste and were delicious; biltong and droëwors served with dried fruit ($7), good for old times' sake; grilled Cape Town squid ($7), very yummy; and slap chips ($5). While the slap chips weren't slap enough for some in our party, we were told the recipe had been adapted to appeal to the local palate. Most of us found them delicious.
For the main course, we skipped the crayfish special and ordered the tasty ostrich burger ($15), served with an onion and tomato topping; fried hake ($18), simply prepared and adequate; a saucy oxtail stew ($16), perhaps a little too mushy; and several more servings of the not-very-slap slap chips. Other menu options included pap and boerewors and a seafood biryani. Of course, we ate the namesake dish, bunny chow ($14) (that SA "fast food" of a hollowed-out chunk of bread filled with curry), served on tin plates. We tried the lamb and chicken versions and found them spicy and flavourful - and pretty authentic. We didn't have much space for dessert, so shared the milk tart ($5), which was disappointing; and the almond tart ($6), which was moist and tasty. There was no coffee on the menu. While that might be a turn-off for an American crowd, it didn't faze us.
Prices were reasonable, with appetisers ranging from $5 to $8, and main courses ranging from $10 to $18. Overall, the quality of the food was better than expected, although next time we might stick to a selection of appetisers, which we enjoyed the most.
Open for only six months, Bunny Chow is now promoting itself as a World Cup destination spot. They hope to attract not only ex-pat South Africans but also young singles and families in this immigrant neighbourhood. They're planning special events like a May 28 cookout, featuring dishes from all the African countries that made it into the World Cup. They're also inviting guest chefs to represent national dishes of each competing country, starting with the first game on June 11 between South Africa and Mexico.
Interestingly, none of the owners is actually South African, although our warm and friendly server, Kim, is from the Eastern Cape. Manu and Ketan are from India (hence their interest in the bunny chow dish), and chef Paul was introduced to South Africans and their food in his home country of St Lucia in the Caribbean. As he said: "Even if I can't speak your language, I can always cook for you."
Once a professional boxer, he has worked in the restaurant business for years, most recently at Madiba, another South African restaurant in Brooklyn, before pitching the Bunny Chow concept to his partners and opening this restaurant. Manu was a Wall Street trader in the World Trade Center until the life-changing events of 9/11. Injured in the attack, he decided to change course and enroll in culinary school. He's never regretted his decision to leave the harried world of finance.
So, as World Cup season approaches, for those not able to journey to South Africa to witness the real thing, we might just make it down to Bunny Chow to cheer on our favourite team.
- Bunny Chow Bar and Restaurant is open seven days a week, with a special brunch menu on Saturday and Sunday. For more information, visit www.bunnychowny.com .