My wife and I were invited to this joint on 3rd Avenue and 19th Street for a press dinner.
“Ponty” is named for a major avenue in Senegal, the country from which chef and owner Cisse originally hails.
Cisse is a French-trained chef, but he has integrated African and global flavors into his dishes to make for an interesting and modern fusion restaurant.
The ambiance here is very bistro, with classic seating, high ceilings and tile floors. But the pale yellow walls are decorated with African wood sculptures to play on the fusion aspect of the place, and African, Latin and other world music plays in the sound system.
It’s been open since November of 2008. Since then Cisse has enticed a large list of regulars to keep coming back in. We saw him greet several tables of diners by name, always friendly and inviting. He’s expanding too: His cousin runs the larger Harlem location that just opened in August of 2014.
Ponty offers a variety of prix fixe lunches and dinners for very reasonable prices ($19-$25). Although they only have one African wine on the menu, the list does include some very nice wines from around the globe.
They do have a nice African lager though: Tusker. I’ve had this before, so I knew I’d be pleased with it.
In addition to the various prix fixe menus, they also offer half price martinis and daily specials.
From the look of the menu, it seemed like martinis were sort of their specialty. So my wife and I tried the bissap (hibiscus), fresh ginger and “French” martinis (pineapple and fruit based – not sure why). I think my favorite was the ginger martini. It had a nice fresh spice-bite to it (on the left below).
The full menu is a pretty impressive (there is a steak presence!), and when you start to read it you’ll think to yourself, “Holy shit, there is a LOT of stuff on here, and the flavors are definitely not just French or African,” and you’ll be absolutely correct.
Chef Cisse was a very early contestant and finalist on the Food Network show “Chopped,” which pits four chef contestants against a “mystery basket” filled with the most random and strange ingredients you can possibly think of. The idea is to test the mettle of the chefs to see if they can still make good dishes with unplanned ingredients. Given this, one can easily understand why the menu is so diverse: The man is extremely versatile. He can cook ANYTHING, and he can cook it really fucking well. And that level of quality extends across the entire menu. He is incredibly consistent.
This joint was PACKED for a Tuesday. I noticed that there was only one waiter for eight or nine tables of guests. Some of the nearby diners were actually getting restless with slow service near the end of their meals. Even my martini order was forgotten for a while, and I was at the press dinner table! It must be tough to know when it will be busy for a place like this; you don’t want to be overstaffed, because then, as a business, you’re wasting money. You can’t really fault them for it, but one more waiter would have solved the problem for sure without breaking the bank too much. And with take-out and delivery orders coming in too (there were lots of bags going out the door), Cisse must have been swamped back in the kitchen, working his ass off. Hats off to his work ethic.
Okay let me get to the fucking food already. Presentation here is clean and simple, with a slightly refined elegance. Each dish you’ll see is very different from the last. The menu is very global – not just French and African. Essentially it is modern global food that’s inspired by French and African cuisine flavors and techniques. I can say confidently that portion sizes on the regular menu are quite large, based on seeing what other people ordered nearby.
Here’s the list of what we had (ignore the address info on top):
These first two items are not on the regular menu. They were specials listed on the board outside (pictured above).
First was a rich, filling, and velvety-smooth lobster bisque with caviar. Onion, celery and carrots were minced into this roux-like soup base with perfectly cooked lobster meat. You could smell the aromatic truffle and cracked pepper when you leaned over the bowl, but their flavors were not overpowering at all. Mine came five minutes later that the rest of the group, so I got more than the others (yes!).
Next was the green bean and artichoke salad, which was topped with shaved Parmesan cheese and dressed with a light truffle vinaigrette. Again there was smart and restrained use of the truffle; aromatic but not overpowering. This was a very light and fresh salad, and, surprisingly, my favorite dish of the night.
This scallop dish with beets and asparagus was really interesting. By the way: beets are back! I hated them as a kid. One of my sisters always loved them though. I never understood why. Now I’m seeing them everywhere, on so many menus around the city. Chefs are nailing them now, preparing them in such great and innovative ways, as Cisse did. So now I’m in for beets! The asparagus was tasty as well here. But the star of the plate, the scallop, was cooked absolutely perfectly. It was caramelized on the outside with a nice savory and sweet glaze that made it meaty and satisfying. The sauce you see is an orange marmalade that tasted like a creamsicle. Very different on a dish like this. But it made for a good mix of sweet and savory. I didn’t think beets or an orange creamsicle sauce would work with scallops, but I found myself really liking this dish. Definitely fusion and not classic. The regular sized portion comes with five scallops, by the way.
This tagine (middle eastern and north African cooking vessel) chicken dish had a nice curry smell with a bold spicy flavor. The chicken was soft; nicely executed. It was plated with couscous. The mirepoix (carrots, celery and onion combo) showed up again here. It is classically French, but the rest of the dish is decidedly north African. The couscous was really good with the curry sauce. It had yellow raisins nestled within, to balance out the spicy curry with some pops of sweetness. The couscous also featured corn, peppers, carrots and zucchini as well – all finely diced.
This hanger steak was cooked to a perfect medium rare. It was really tender, too. I was a little concerned that we weren’t given steak knives for this course, but it turns out the butter knife was just fine. It was THAT tender. Needless to say, this meat man was pleased. All aspects of this dish were done-up exactly how they should be prepared, and all things tasted exactly how they should taste. A classic wine sauce, sautéed spinach and creamy mashed potato. We returned here to a more classic approach to the dish, as opposed to a fusion or African inspiration. These are tried and true accompaniments to this delicious piece of beef, and Cisse nailed the execution. Sorry the spinach is hiding behind the beef in these photos. I was excited to dig in!
For dessert we tried the tiramisu and creme brulee. There was a good amount of orange zest to add a citrus flavor to the creme brulee. This took me back to the earlier “orange marmalade” creamsicle sauce that came with the scallop dish. Orange zest + creamy egg custard = creamsicle for dessert. The custard was nicely handled. It was creamy, smooth and not eggy. There was a good texture and nice crisp on the sugar without going too bitter.
The tiramisu was soft and smooth. There was a nice hint of coffee as well. The ricotta was light, and the cake was not too boozy. I preferred this to the creme brulee. Really nice.
I’m glad to see that Ponty is expanding into Harlem. I’d like to get up there and try that location out, and I hope some of you readers will try one or both places as well.
218 3rd Ave.
New York, NY 10003