The restaurant's soft industrial lighting makes the chrome gleam. A soft and expansive backdrop of blue gives the space a cool and slightly futuristic industrial like a hip loft in the future. Exposed brick walls are tinged in a blue sheen and the distressed wood chairs and tables have been stained steel gray and have marble table tops. In three weeks, Cisse Elhadji, the owner of Ponty Bistro in Midtown, will open his new restaurant La Terengea. Located at 144 West 139th St., the restaurant us nestled in between the Hudson and Harlem rivers a few blocks west of the City College of New York. The location of the restaurant is quite lucrative given its relative proximity to both Central Park as well as Yankee Stadium.
Though Elhadji has succeeded once with an African restaurant, La Teregenga is still a gamble. For the first time in his life, he's had to take on both a bank loan and money from friends and family. He initially estimated that it would take six months to renovate. However, he is already running four weeks behind schedule. "Ponty Bistro…I saved up for it" Elhadji continues. "I want to open another restaurant about six months to a year after this one." While the decor is modern and chic, the restaurant flavors and smells are robust. The menu's offerings are a hybrid of Senegalese and French meats accompanied by vegetables and spices yielding a rich flavor. Elhadji explained that the menu for La Trenga will be the same as Ponty Bistro but more streamlined. The menu is dominated by seafood but other options exist including lamb and fries. Appetizers range from seven to fourteen dollars and some can be ordered as an entree. Offerings include foie gras, truffle macaroni and cheese and salmon tartare. Soup offerings as of the printing of this article are French onion and a Soup de Calabash that include butternut squash as its prominent ingredient.
The menu continues with exquisite and delectable offerings that include pastas, chicken, seafood and even sandwiches and vegetarian choices. Entrees range in price from the high teens to the lower thirty dollar range for each item. Even less-traveled American eaters will see items on the menu that attract them such as lobster ravioli and Spaghetti Bolognese. For the more adventurous, there are traditional and extravagant Senegalese offerings such as Poulet Yassa which is a traditional chicken dish served with rice. Side items can also be ordered for six dollars apiece and they include rosemary potatoes, mashed potatoes, grilled asparagus and couscous. Both the staff and the menu encourage a wide array and peoples and cultures to come and enjoy the restaurant. Elhadji is hoping the new place will become a neighborhood hot spot in Harlem free of culture and gentrification and thus attract all walks of life. Thus, the prices appeal to people from a range of income classes. The waiters are also diverse as all of them speak at least two, if not three, entirely different languages. While the price points are certainly a little higher than those seen at lesser restaurants, they are not out of reach for most average consumers even if it is only the occasional splurge.
This same scene could occur in a number of African restaurants in New York City. Such restaurants have boomed in the past few years, with a new African restaurant opening in New York roughly every six months, a dramatic rise. Perhaps the oldest one would be the Awash Ethiopian Restaurant which opened in 1989 but the current trend did not really begin to pick up until 1995 when three restaurants opened in different parts of New York, those being the Jollof (Senegal) in Brooklyn, The Sugar Bar (African/Caribbean) in the Upper West Side and the African Kine (Senegal) in Harlem. Two years later, two more opened up with the Madiba Restaurant (South African) opening in 1999 along with the Queen of Sheba (Ethiopian) that same year. Things really started to ramp up in 2004 as at least one partially or fully African-oriented restaurant has opened every year since then. Kombit Bar and Restaurant (Haitian/African) and Awash (Ethopia) opened in 2004. 2005 openings included Nomad (Morrocan) and Zoma (Ethiopia) while 2006 was the starting year for Accra Restaurant, which has cuisine from Ghana. Most years since have had about four a year but 2012 had at least six openings in Brooklyn, Midtown, the Bronx and Harlem…and the above are just the ones with verifiable opening dates. Scheduled 2014 openings include the aforementioned La Tarenga and two others, all in Harlem. A handful have verifiably closed, those all being in Brooklyn and the Bronx. African restaurants in New York have often started in single occupancy hotel rooms. This is in large part due to high commercial renting costs and extremely high overhead, just as attested by Elhadji.
Creating a chic place where that people could bring their friends was important to Elhadji. This, of course, is due to the strong correlation between food and enjoyment of friends and other company, something around which Elhadji's naturally revolves. Many of the dishes at El Ponty involve big plates for people to share including appetizers and other finger foods meant to be shared. However, smaller plates around a cozy table are also ameable to many patrons and groups of friends. Elhadji understands that many diners are adventurous. He assesses that they want to be able to take friends to new places and be able to pick and choose among interesting dishes they've never had.
Elhadji moves through his current restaurant, Ponty Bistro, like a benevolent tornado. He shakes hands, laughs with and talks with customers. It is readily apparent that he is trying to make everyone feel welcome and he does so quite effectively. He understands that success depends not only on food and decor but also on his own charisma and that of the staff which are, of course, seen as an extension of the management and ownership of the restaurant. Many of his customers predict that La Terenga succeed because of his presence and his understanding of what restaurant goers demand.
Elhadji has scheduled the soft opening of the new restaurant for July 15th and says he enjoys the challenge of opening up a restaurant. At the same time, he concedes how difficult it is. Two reasons generally underscore his actions. First he says, "Always try to grow and make a better life." Second, La Terenga is the restaurant he has wanted his entire life: big and expensive. A self-professed workaholic who doesn't smoke or drink, he believes in the importance of working long hours. As he explains, "In 1996, I came here to this country with nothing. I just keep going. It's life. I work hard. I believe. I play by the rules. You make money. If the restaurant isn't full it will drive me crazy. I find a way. Find a solution. Rent is very high. I can't afford one month without paying rent. This is my job. Never had a publicist. I always do it myself. Ponty Bistro has always been only word of mouth and reviews on restaurant review websites like Yelp and Yahoo. Residing in Manhattan, Elhadji is only 32 years old and has only been in the United States since 1996. He stands a fairly short five foot eight tall but possesses beautiful white teeth and a magnetizing smile, Elhadji hails from the country of Senegal. He speaks French as well as his native dialect from Senegal, known as Wolof. His English is outstanding but he does possess a slight accent. Even though is his fairly short for a male, he is quite muscular and has a commanding presence even with his fairly casual attire that consists of plaid shirts and blue jeans. However, when he strolls into the kitchen, he is all business with a full chef's coat and hat.
Elhadji is attempting to evolve and update his approach, however. For example, even though he has had no publicist at Ponty, he has indeed interviewed two publicists. He concedes that because Terenga is a new and bigger restaurant, he needs to promote it more aggressively. His reasons for working so hard and for wanting to leave his stamp on New York are not unlike others that aspire to come America and attain the good life. He believes that America is absolutely a place presents the opportunity for people to put their stamps on it and make their experience truly their own.
He also speculates that perhaps part of his motivation stems from the fact that both his parents are dead. A typical day for Elhadji involves getting up at 5 am and going to his computer to answer email and check inventory levels. He then heads over the new restaurant to check on the construction work and assess its progress. His schedule involves a series of meetings with a range of people working…