First cousins, Ejhadji Cisse and Cheikh Cisse, moved to the states in 1995 from Dakar, Senegal. Both entered the restaurant business, working for internationally renowned chefs such as Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Daniel Boulud. Chef Cisse was even a finalist on Food Network’s Chopped in 2009.
Together, they founded Ponty Bistro, first in Gramercy Park in 2008 and in Harlem in 2010. The duo serves a delectable African and French cuisine with Mediterranean influences. We sat down with Chef Cisse to discuss his love for cooking and owning Ponty Bistro as well as our shared love for the Upper Manhattan neighborhood, the location of our newest home.
Can you explain the significance behind the name, “Ponty Bistro”?
The significance behind the name Ponty Bistro is that it comes from a famous street in Dakar, Senegal Africa. In the late ’80s, everything was beautiful on Avenue William Ponty. There were bars, restaurants, beautiful people, good music, and incredible traditions. One of my favorite places there is La Gondal, a really nice restaurant, in addition to the other great institutions, businesses, bars, and motels.
How would you describe French and African cuisine to someone who’s never tried it before? What’s one thing on the menu that they should try?
In my perspective, French and African cuisine is a perfect blend of spices, flavors, and cooking techniques. My background is in French cuisine because the French colonized Senegal, and French is also considered one of the best cuisines in the world. In fact, they teach mostly French cooking techniques in cooking schools. Having learned from some of the best chefs in the world when I came to New York, this style of cooking is what I picked up.
Because I’m also African, I add my own flair to whatever I cook. I like to add savory African spices and flavors to make them delicious and slightly different. That’s what makes us stand out. One of our most popular dishes is the ‘Yassa,’ which you can make with chicken or fish, with stewed peppers, onions, and a nice side of white rice.
Your Harlem location is your second, opened in 2010, after Gramercy Park. Why here, and what’s your favorite part about being in this neighborhood?
I chose Harlem because it reminds me of Senegal — it feels like home. There are others who speak the same language, and some who come from other West African Countries and have similar culture as me. The 116th street used to be called “Little Senegal,” so it was like being back on Avenue William Ponty.
You also have a very extensive cocktail menu. What’s your inspiration there, and in your opinion, what’s the best combo you recommend at Ponty Bistro?
Well, I don’t drink, but I understand that my customers do, so I collaborated with mixologists and other professionals in the industry to create our drink menu. My inspiration behind that is that I wanted to create a sophisticated menu and a relaxed atmosphere where people could have a fancy cocktail, wine, or a simple beer.
People who come to Ponty Bistro love our signature cocktails: the Ginger Martini or the Bissap Martini. Those drinks are a combination of Senegalese traditional Bissap Juice and Ginger juice, which we drink a lot of in Senegal, mixed with alcohol. Our Bissap and ginger juice are homemade every day.
How do you hope new residents of the neighborhood approach and feel at Ponty Bistro?
We encourage new residents to come by Ponty Bistro. People say that our food is very flavorful and that they felt comfortable here. Often times, I‘m around all day, and I personally greet and seat my customers. We want to make sure our customers are happy and that spending time here feels like spending time with family.
What are your other favorite restaurants in the neighborhood?
Some of my favorite Harlem restaurants are ‘Clay’ for their presentation, ‘Vinateria’ for great customer service and food, ‘Babbalucci’ for their wonderful pizza (my kids love it), and ‘African Kine’ for traditional African Cuisine.
Common Hamilton, our fully furnished beautiful home in Hamilton Heights, is near Ponty Bistro and a handful of other spectacular spots. Take a free tour today, move in next week, and visit Chef Cisse at Ponty Bistro.
Don’t forget to follow Ponty Bistro on Instagram.