Virgin's On Top at Bunny Chow

The Lower East Side greets a South African restaurant

In the annals of amazing food slang, South Africa runs neck-and-neck with Britain—home of spotted dick and tipsy hedgehog. That's in no small part because South Africans can claim bunny chow, an ingenious fast food that involves neither rabbits nor carrots. The dish is actually a hollowed-out heel of bread filled with curry, the scooped-out portion of bread (called, deliciously, "the virgin") perched on top, sometimes topped with a dollop of chutney or pickle. Bunny chow resembles a rectangular version of the dreaded American bread bowl, but is generally filled with much tastier stuff.

Invented by people of Indian origin living in Durban, the exact origin of the name has been lost to time. One story goes that a curry house run by Banias (a certain caste) came up with it so that they could serve their stews to-go to people who were excluded from entering the restaurant under apartheid. Another version claims that Indian laborers invented it as a way to pack their lunches to eat in the fields. In any event, it has become so popular that a 2006 South African movie was named after the dish—and now a new restaurant on the Lower East Side.

Bunny Chow is a very curious place, mainly because it's staffed with one very odd waiter, who you may find entertaining, or infuriating, or both. He wears a newsboy cap and a jaunty scarf, perhaps to make sure the deaf will also know he comes from France. His Gallic accent is so thick that, as he came galloping down the room to greet us, his "Do you have a reservation?" sounded exactly like "Vous avez un chien?" To which I made a puzzled reply: "Yes, but he's not with us," before realizing my mistake. (I don't normally bring my dog when reviewing restaurants.) But our fellow seemed to think this was a completely normal response, and showed us to a table, and in good time, took our order.

Virgin's on top: Standard position at Bunny Chow
Jared Gruenwald
Virgin's on top: Standard position at Bunny Chow

Meanwhile, he continued to stomp back and forth across the room, occasionally hollering unintelligible things. The Killers began to warble on the sound system. The waiter shouted, "Shut the fuck up!" and changed the song to "Tainted Love," to which he sang along with great enthusiasm. Next, he put on "Crush," that tune from 1998 that goes "It's just a little crush . . . ," then turned up the volume to club-level and danced. We gaped at him; we ate. When we later asked for our leftovers, he brought it back in foil folded to look like a dove, and made it fly next to my ear, cooing softly.

At this point, my friend said he wanted to go on the record stating that our waiter was actually a performance artist. I thought maybe we were on a hidden-camera show. But on our following visit, it was the same routine all over again—the shouting, the singing, plus this time he also drank a generous quantity of wine.

The kitchen still manages to turn out solid food at regular intervals, which feels like a minor miracle. The signature bunny chow, for instance, is a very agreeable winter dish—heavy and warming. The crusty bread holds up heroically under the weight of the lamb-curry filling, a cumin-laced stew with tender, bone-in lamb chunks and hunks of potato, topped with a bit of mango chutney. You can also choose shrimp or chicken renditions.

Rivaling bunny chow for fun-with-names, "slap chips" are South African–style French fries. "Slap" or "slup" means "limp" in Afrikaans, and that's apparently how South Africans like their fried potatoes: fat and floppy. Bunny Chow concedes to American tastes, though, and crisps its steak fries pretty well, serving them with an appealing yogurt-feta dip.

Grilled Cape Town cuttlefish, perhaps the best dish on the menu, can also be found in the appetizer list. The cephalopods turn wonderfully sticky and rich in a molasses-chile sauce with ground peanuts. The sauce gives the mild tentacles a toasty, almost burnt sweetness.

Other good bets on the starters side include anything with peri-peri. Peri-peri is not only the name for the small, ultra-hot African bird's-eye chilies, but also for the spicy sauce made with the peppers. Go for the grilled, shell-on butterflied shrimp, lathered with a brick-orange concoction that warms your lips (you can get a larger portion as a main, with saffron rice). Chicken wings are smeared with the same flavorful sauce, turning your fingers red as you gnaw the bones. But these appear to be a new invention: slap wings, with unpleasantly limp skin.

Main dishes, aside from the bunny chow, offer less exciting eating. A plate of pap and boerewors—polenta and sausage—comes out just fine, the sausages loose and nicely seasoned, reminiscent of Jimmy Dean. A seafood biryani looks more like something Mother would have concocted out of Recipes for a Small Planet than the real Indian article—a pile of rice, lentils, and onions that tastes like someone very excitable discovered curry powder for the first time, plus a few shrimp, mussels, and nuggets of white fish thrown in for good measure.

The mains run between $10 and $18, and appetizers average $8—fair enough, although the wine list could use some bottles in the $20 range, especially since you can find good bargains in South African wine. Bottles here start at $35, which is preposterous for such a casual place.

Then again, you can linger over that bottle for however long you like. One night, we sat with a big plate of the biryani and drank a bottle of Pepper Pot, a simple, berry-ish red blend from the Stellenbosch region of South Africa. Our waiter cavorted around the room and periodically disappeared for smoke breaks. It's rare and somewhat refreshing to find a place in Manhattan that's so genuinely weird, and so unconcerned with business notions like turning tables.

sdigregorio@villagevoice.com

For more of our restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road

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