Running a restaurant in New York City takes a whole lot more than knowing how to prepare a palate-pleasing meal. You need a pile of licenses, permits and certificates. The competition is stiff; rents are high; well-trained help and reliable suppliers can be hard to find and keep; your workweek can easily run to 100 hours; and reviews by industry critics and customers alike can be severely unforgiving.
According to the New York Restaurant Association, 70 percent of new restaurants either close or change hands within the first five years.
Opening an African restaurant in a part of the city where residents generally are unfamiliar with the continent’s culinary flavors can be particularly challenging. Aside from a few Ethiopian spots, African restaurants are pretty much nonexistent in downtown Manhattan. Not surprisingly, they are proliferating uptown in Harlem and in the boroughs of Brooklyn and the Bronx, where owners can count on a steady clientele from the sizable local community of Africans, African-Americans, Afro-Caribbeans, and even from the growing number of young white professionals moving into those areas and who seem eager to fit in with the local culinary fare.
Into the daunting environment of downtown Manhattan stepped Senegalese cousins A. Cissé and Chekh Cissé. They thought they had a winning formula for locals and visitors when they opened Ponty Bistro restaurant in tony Gramercy Park in 2008: a blend of West African and Mediterranean exotica and French cachet.
“It was a dream to open up my own restaurant. My cousin and I worked so hard to save money with the goal of opening a restaurant for our clientele that fuses the sophisticated flavors of West Africa, France and the Mediterranean with a modern twist,” says Chekh Cissé. “New York City is the melting pot of the world and we wanted to share our culture with the most diverse city on the planet. We love to cook and provide the most unique, creative taste to ever hit NYC.”
In August 2014, three months shy of Ponty Bistro’s sixth anniversary, the Cissés broke ground on a second restaurant, this time uptown in Harlem, where a second Renaissance is unfolding.
The Cissé cousins are Ponty Bistro’s executive chefs. They came into New York with pedigree. Both honed their culinary skills at restaurants owned by internationally renowned chefs, Jean-Georges Vongerichten (Vong/The Mercer Kitchen) and Daniel Boulud (Daniel, Café Boulud), before striking out on their own. Chef A. Cissé was the first African contestant and finalist on the Food Network’s hit show “Chopped.”
“The hardest part was to come up with something that people around here didn’t know,” A. Cissé told The Network Journal in an interview. “It was very risky for us because we came in with a different flavor, a different food that people who live around here didn’t know.” (See the video of their interview at tnj.com/ponty-bistro).
A signature lunch and dinner entrée at both venues is Niokolokoba, a traditional Senegalese dish of grilled sirloin steak marinated with Senegalese spices and served with french fries and au poivre sauce. “The technique of cooking is French, but the spices we are using are all from West Africa — Senegal — especially in the sauce,” Chekh Cissé says.
Moules Africana, another signature classic, offers mussels flavored with African spices in a shallot-garlic white wine sauce, served with french fries.
What are Ponty Bistro’s main ingredients for success? Hard work and loving what they do. “The reward is that your hard work will always pay off in the end,” says A. Cissé. “Know that it’s good to make money, but if you don’t love what you are doing, you will never succeed.”
Ponty Bistro has been going strong for almost seven years and expects to do so for years to come. “My dream is for President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama to come and dine at Ponty Bistro,” says Chef Cissé.