Detroit fusion spot Bunny Bunny makes you jump through hoops

Dried chili chicken.
Dried chili chicken. Tom Perkins

Bunny Bunny

1454 Gratiot Ave., Detroit
Handicap accessible (though not the bar)
5-10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday
Shareable dishes $9-$22, bar menu $8-$25

The pandemic has made us jump through hoops to get our food. We carry out, we order in, we dine on sidewalks and in hoop houses; if we do get to sit down we order awkwardly through a QR code so as not to interact with a server.

So when a restaurant does offer attentive servers and paper menus, that's a big plus, for as long as it lasts. At Bunny Bunny you will check off your desires on a disposable menu, like at a sushi bar, but that's fine — you're still allowed to ask questions and you won't have to go and fetch the food yourself.

More importantly, add to those amenities that the food by chef-owners Justin Tootla and Jen Jackson is fantastic — scallops are always on the menu — and you have a winner that deserves to outlast the current scourge.

Now, dining at Bunny Bunny is still complicated, and I'll spell it out:

If you eat in the restaurant proper and you want alcohol, you must climb a long flight of stairs to Collect, the next-door bar with different owners. There, friendly bartender Eric will sell you a beer, a can of wine, or a cocktail in a sealed container. Don't open it before you get back down — you'll offend some lawmaker's sensibilities. Then the Bunny Bunny staff will give you a glass and can add mixers or garnishes.

However, if you want to both drink and eat on Collect's rooftop terrace — a recommended view with a stand-up bar around two sides — you can ask Bunny Bunny for a take-out menu, which is completely separate from its sit-down menu. You'll get your meal in a brown paper bag and can then mount the two flights of stairs to the roof, pausing mid-way to order your drink from Eric.

The extra efforts are worth it, you'll just have to believe me. Maybe less so if you've just had a rattling week at work and would rather be pampered than think. But you can do it, reader, for the terrific and affordable food.

The tagline is "Food from India, South Africa, and the American South" (Tootla is half-Indian, his Indian father immigrated to Detroit from South Africa, and Jackson's birthplace is the American South). Tootla says it's "Indian food through the lens of South African ingredients," and often Southern and Indian will be combined in the same dish. You'll see paneer (India's version of cottage cheese), tandoori or chili chicken, beef curry, puri, fried oysters, okra, collards, curry dirty rice, and fritters of black-eyed peas or crabs.

click to enlarge Scallop crudo. - Tom Perkins
Tom Perkins
Scallop crudo.

Some specifics: Fried scallops are on the bar menu and varying fancier scallops are on the downstairs menu, which changes almost daily. I loved a luscious but subtle scallop crudo, with shredded chili potatoes and perfect slices of peach. The overall effect was rich and raw. Equally fabulous: short ribs with peaches, yogurt, and curry leaves, in a sea of soppable sauce.

At first I thought my glistening fried rice was missing the advertised pork, but I soon found that the pork was doing its bit in tiny flecks, some of them pure fat, alongside bright green beans, all of it glowing with cumin. Curry dirty rice, too, leans on cumin, and some of the "dirt" is sausage.

Mawzy's cornbread salad is a salad in the sense of "a mix": no greens, just cornbread, fresh corn, bacon, and some pale green peppers. Dried chili chicken is served with sweet onion and jalapeño rings, and the "dried" refers to the chilis, not the bird, which achieves that elusive balance between moist meat and just the right amount of crisp crust. Many a Southern cook could take lessons on keeping the flavor in the fowl.

Those are from the 17- or 18-item downstairs menu. You're encouraged to share, and we found that three dishes were fine for two people.

Upstairs in the breeze, it's a bar menu with aspirations. The fried chicken sandwich sports brown butter. The grilled cheese sandwich oozes ricotta and mozzarella on sourdough. My sweet and shredded lump crab was mixed with a coleslaw that included red onion. A huge order of fries for $4 comes with Southern comeback sauce, a ketchup-mayo-mustard concoction that I would avoid. A collard melt is served on sourdough from Ochre Bakery on Grand River Avenue.

Lots of places have got fancy seltzers, silly beers, and canned wines these days, but I still enjoyed Collect's offerings, such as a half bottle of crisp and slightly bubbly Pinot Grigio from Plus Six4 in New Zealand, a Whippersnapper 6.9% hard cider with all promised notes of cinnamon, ginger, and pear decidedly present, and a Be the Ball Sour IPA with milk sugars, vanilla, and tangerine (true beer aficionados, avert your eyes). House cocktails are served for $22 in sealed brown flasks, sized for two: say gin with house tonic, with tamarind and coriander, or bourbon with lemon and Chartreuse.

In addition to the above-mentioned "the owners act like they care" details, Bunny Bunny has a lovely atmosphere that feels like a special occasion that you don't need to get dressed up for. The color scheme is pink-green without being preppy and the flatware is gold-colored without looking like Louis XIV. Full on a recent early Friday, the place was full of fresh flowers and live plants, as a taxidermy bear cub presided.

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Jane Slaughter

Jane Slaughter is a former editor of Labor Notes and co-author of Secrets of a Successful Organizer. Her writing has also appeared in The Nation, The Progressive, Monthly Review, and In These Times.
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