Chouchou: A Romantic French-Moroccan Rendezvous

Hidden behind a sultry, unmarked storefront, Chouchou is easy to miss, but impossible to forget. No sign or lights mark the way to this secret corner.

Gaining its name from a French phrase that acts as a term of endearment, best likened to “darling,” the restaurant has plenty of critical praise and positive press despite its unassuming façade.

I can honestly say that Chouchou a place I would never have found if I had not been invited to a private tasting dinner.

Its Moroccan menu primarily offers two sets of either meat or vegetables: tagine and couscous. It looks very limited, but between the execution and the parade of familiar Mediterranean appetizers, it’s a charming and engaging journey. Executive Chef Meryem Michra is talented at all the classics, but also has plenty of twists in store.

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Hummus, baba ganoush, pita, and shakshuka all make an appearance here. I found them simple yet well executed in the standard fashion.

The most exciting of the appetizers were large deviled eggs filled with paprika and other spices. Mostly known as being a European appetizer, Chouchou’s version has plenty of personality. They were creamy and smooth with a lightly peppery yet satisfyingly umami flavor that contrasted with their cool temperature. They served us three halves that I would have gladly devoured all by myself. When a fellow diner admitted they were allergic to yolks, their portion found a most happy home in my gullet.

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Amongst the entrees, I was most impressed with the chicken and lamb tagines.

The chicken tagine was pleasing in both appearance and flavor. Its golden skin was streaked with crimson. Chef Meryem told me she bastes it with herbs then cooks it in the olive sauce before baking the flavor into it again. The result ends up being moist morsels of mainly dark meat encased in a crispy cocoon of skin.

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If it weren’t for the bones, I would have thought the lamb was more liquid than solid. It slid off that easily. Served with plump apricots and prunes sweet as candy, it was a savory, refreshing oasis devoid of gamey toughness or bitterness.

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For dessert, we enjoyed some tiny almond cookies and other assorted pastries. With hints of aromatic spices between each breaded bite, I felt a bit like I was carried on a desert wind.

I would like to give special mention to the green tea, which was poured in the traditional, flashy Moroccan fashion—from a great height. It acted as the perfect palette cleanser between courses and very much both woke me up and welcomed me with invigorating doses of sugar. It was so lively and refreshing I opted to skip out on the wine in favor of more of that sweet, sweet tea.

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Between the meat, the tea, and those luscious deviled eggs, Chouchou is definitely a restaurant I hope to revisit. For now, it will remain in the shadows, but seldom does a secret spot like this stay that way for long.

Chouchou

Address: 215 East 4th Street (Between Avenues A & B)

Website: http://www.chouchounyc.com

Phone: (646) 869-1423

Hours:  5:30 PM-12:00 AM Midnight from Tuesday to Sunday. Closed on Mondays.

Ponty: A French Bistro with African Roots

As Spring bathes us in warmth and light and a desire to walk, I find myself increasingly able and willing to leave my home downtown and traverse the streets above 14th. Located in the Gramercy area on 19th and 3rd, Ponty Bistro is an excellent reason to do just that.

Owing its namesake to an avenue in Senegal (a country in West Africa), Ponty was dreamed up by cousins and culinary duo Cisse and Chekh, who have cooked together since their formative years. Trained in the classical French tradition of cooking, the two aimed to imbue their dishes with their African roots through the addition of certain fruits, vegetables, spices, and other creative accents. After several years of success, the two expanded to a Harlem location with Chekh overseeing management and executive chef duties uptown.

Chef Cisse and his cousin, Chef Chekh

Chef Cisse and his cousin, Chef Chekh

Chef Cisse was actually a contestant on Season 3 of the Food Network reality show Chopped, and a finalist. His high placement in the competition is a testament to his creativity, improvisational skills, and ability to work well under pressure. On his home turf and free of TV’s limitations, Cisse’s artistry is even more evident!

We started off with a small taste of the Lobster Bisque in a tea cup. Despite only being a sample portion, there was plenty of lobster. Garnished with red caviar, it left a dazzling impression on me. Despite a saffron color and aroma, Chef Cisse tells me he whipped up the decadent, silky bisque with a simple blend of onions, celery, and carrots–known in more refined circles as a mirepoix. I feel that this one is a must order if you enjoy seafood. Lobster Bisque

Lobster Bisque

Next we had the artichoke and green bean salad. Dressed up with parmesan cheese and truffle vinaigrette, the greens were quite easy for me to devour. If you’re expecting something super healthy for your salad, you’ll probably find the huge amount of parmesan off putting, but it’s a deceptively light extravagance that rolls off the palette nicely.

Artichoke Salad with Shaved Parmesan

Artichoke Salad with Shaved Parmesan

Our first main course was the Saint Jaque du Che –  A Seared Sea Scallop with roasted beets and asparagus in orange marmalade sauce–a dish that seemed so colorful and creative, it might have been something crafted on Chopped! Like a splash of fruity sorbet, the citrus sauce cleansed the palette, allowing for even greater appreciation of the crispy and savory seafood. This dish exemplifies what sets Ponty aside from other bistros as it takes a French seafood staple and mixes it up with a kaleidoscope of fruit, color, and flavor from Africa. I was thrilled to taste one of these, though normally you get five per order.

This was definitely my favorite thing on the menu, and if a guy named Otter says the scallops are good, you know they are good!

Saint Jacque du Chef - Pan Seared Scallop

Saint Jacque du Chef – Pan Seared Scallop

The second main course was the Poulet Tagine (chicken cooked in an earthenware pot), the most African of the dishes that night. On a bed of sweet and filling couscous and served alongside celery, carrots, and onions, it was a spicy, hearty dish, and Cisse’s take on North African cuisine and curry. If aromatic spices and desert heat make you drool, this is definitely the dish for you.

Poulet Tagine

Poulet Tagine

The final main course was the L’onglet A Echalotte, a tender slab of hanger steak in a bordelaise (my sources tell me red wine and onion with bone marrow) sauce. It was an all-around charming and tasty French steak. The accompanying Yukon Gold mashed potatoes and sautéed greens also rounded out the rest of the dish nicely. Perfect for anybody craving standard French bistro faire or just a really juicy steak in a sweet wine sauce! Chef Cisse took that Bordeaux wine and glazed it into a pool of deep red velvet.

L'onglet A Echalotte

Anyone who watched Chef Cisse’s Chopped episode will know that the panel of judges was most blown away by his desserts, and I was impressed with the two he brought out for our table : A Creme Brûlée and a Tiramisu! Adorned with ripe strawberries, the desserts showed off Cisse’s talents as a pastry chef. The Tiramisu in particular was divine for me as it remained light and summery with only the tiniest trace of liqueur beneath the fresh clouds of cream.

Creme Brûlée and Tiramisu

Creme Brûlée and Tiramisu

In terms of drink offerings, there is a variety of global wines and other beverages, though it is Ponty’s unique martinis that seem to be the most popular with tropical accents like Lychee and Hibiscus!

Lychee Martini. As sweet as it sounds!

Lychee Martini. As sweet as it sounds!

Ponty Bistro is an excellent choice in a neighborhood known more for its luxury housing at the moment than its restaurant offerings. Whether you’re looking to pick up something Senegalese or fancy a more familiar French dish, it’s certainly deserving of a visit!

Ponty Bistro

Address: 218 3rd Avenue (Between 18th and 19th)

Website: http://www.pontybistro.com

Phone Number: (212) 777 1616

Hours: Lunch is from 11 AM to 4 PM from Mondays to Fridays, Dinner is every day from 4:30 PM to 11:30 PM, Brunch is 10 AM to 4 PM on weekends. Happy Hour is 5:00 PM to 7:00 PM and offers 2-for-1 Martinis.