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Could Bunny Chow be the New Banh Mi?

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Earlier this year, the stretch of Orchard Street just below Broome found itself at the epicenter of the city’s banh mi hysteria. The brand new restaurant, An Choi, helped fuel the frenzy for the Vietnamese street food phenom. Now, across the street, the guys behind Orchard Street’s new South African outpost are hoping bunny chow will become the new banh mi.

Bunny chow consists of a hollowed out hunk of bread filled with curry stew, and topped with a chutney. Popular in Durban, it’s a messy affair – meant to be eaten with your hands. The hearty dish is a fast-food staple in much of South Africa. Recently, I stopped by the restaurant, which has been named after its signature dish, to talk with co-owners Paul Simeon, who was the chef at New York’s South African trailblazer, Madiba, and Manu Dhingra, a partner in Bunny Chow” predecessor  “Sonia Rose.”

Paul is originally from St. Lucia but has been in New York for 20 years, helping to launch restaurants such as Negril and Local. For Manu, the project marks a major shift. A trader, who suffered horrible burns in the World Trade Center attack on 9/11, he recently went to culinary school, and is now realizing his dream of opening a restaurant. He believes 9/11 made him a stronger person. Trapped in the North
Tower, he suffered burns over 40-percent of his body and walked down 83
floors to safety.It was a gripping story he told on Larry King and Oprah. But Manu says, long ago, he chose to get on with his life. Today, there’s every indication that’s exactly what he’s done.

For all of New York’s culinary diversity, there are only a handful of South African restaurants in the city. Paul says he’s always been intrigued by the varied cultures – English, Dutch and Indian – that make up the country’s cuisine.  Manu (born in India) and Paul (well acquainted with Indian flavors from his childhood in the Caribbean) bonded over their shared vision for the restaurant. Although New Yorkers may not initially know quite what to expect from “Bunny Chow,” Paul is confident they’ll come to appreciate the worldly aspects of the menu, as well as the rustic nature of the food. He invited me into the kitchen for a look at how he makes his signature dish:

Beyond bunny chow, it’s an interesting menu. Other offerings include:

Prawns Peri Peri, pan roasted with hot pepper and herbs…

Biltongs, shaved dried beef (similar to jerky) with African spices, dried fruits and champagne grapes…

There’s also ostrich sausage, oxtail with cumin tomato sauce and vegetable biryani with mussels, shrimp, cuttlefish, toasted coconut and peach chutney. For the full menu, click here.

Paul and Manu say they love the creative spirit and community feel on their block. They appreciate the casual energy at neighborhood favorites Ten Bells and Barrio Chino. They’re hoping to draw customers from the Lower East Side but also from New York’s large South African population. Manu says they’re planning to eventually offer live music, and want to become a destination for rugby, cricket and soccer fans. Already they’ve made the 2-story space available to local filmmakers for screenings. “We want our neighbors to help define who we are,” Manu says.

 

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4 COMMENTS

  1. As amazing and interesting as South African food is, it is incredible that there is such a paucity of restaurants. I am glad that someone from Madiba is taking it upon themselves to come into Manhattan, for those of us who just can’t go to Brooklyn due to severe laziness. I can’t wait to try it.

  2. the answer is no, but hopefully it is, because all the douchebags talking about banh mi is getting stale

  3. It appears the banh mi craze is not letting up in any way. As for the bunny chow, it’s probably a bit too messy and too gargantuan to have the same appeal. But it’s a nice alternative in the neighborhood. I must confess I couldn’t resist writing the headline!

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