The opening-day menu at Eat Offbeat — a brand new restaurant commanding a prime spot near the western entrance of Chelsea Market — included Jollof Rice and Chicken Yassa prepared by Chef Mariama of Senegal, Katarica Curry and Dhal made by Chef Shanthini of Sri Lanka and Tahini Roasted Vegetables courtesy of Chef Diaa, a refugee from Syria.
It's a feast you probably wouldn't be able to assemble under one roof anywhere else in town — and that's not even mentioning Chef Lebjulet's Venezuelan dishes, nor Chef Bashir's Afghani treats — but Eat Offbeat is not your standard operation.
"We are a team of refugees and immigrants from around the world with a passion for cooking," Eat Offbeat's co-founder and CEO Manal Kahi told Gothamist. "We love food, and we love sharing food, and we love sharing our culture through food."
While running a physical storefront may be new for Eat Offbeat, the team has been feeding New York City since 2015: first as a successful catering business, then adding meal kits, packaged provisions and delivery when the pandemic hit. Still, Kahi admitted that being in Chelsea Market, a landmark destination for tourists, felt special.
"For the past seven years we've had an incredible level of support from our NYC customers, and we knew we were welcome," she said. "But now with this restaurant we feel like not only are we welcome, but now we're also a part of the basic fabric of the city" — and one fully on display for visitors from all over the world to see.
Eat Offbeat is a counter-service restaurant, and the menu is set up build-a-bowl style. You choose a well-seasoned base like Senegalese couscous or Afghani dill rice, a stew-like main dish that gets ladled on top, and, if you want even more pleasure in your life, a side or two. The place is still very much in soft-opening mode — they underestimated demand and sold out of about half their items early on their first day — but the plan is to add more options as well as grab-and-go items in the coming weeks.
The team of chefs prepare everything in a commercial kitchen up in Mott Haven, and it's all hearty, full-flavored food that travels well and sits well, the sorts of things about which you'd say "it's even better the next day" if you were lucky enough to have leftovers at home.
"Each dish is done by the chef who is from that country, so it's really representative of their own take on the recipe. It's authentic in that way," said Kahi. "For us, we don't pretend that we are giving you, like, the authentic jollof rice for all of Senegal, it's Chef Mariama's take on jollof rice. So it's all very personal. It's as if they were cooking for their families, except now it's a much, much more extended family."
Of five different dishes sampled on a visit after closing this week, everything was exceptional. The Chicken Yassa featured a mess of tender thigh meat in a mustardy sauce, the Venzuelan Caraotas Negras was robust and spicy, the Iraqi Sumac Salad bright and lively, the yellow Sri Lankan Dhal among the best versions I've ever had of that dish.
There are a few tables within the Eat Offbeat space, and a few more in the concourse, plus lots of outdoor seating on 16th Street through the semi-secret door next to the elevator. A few packaged snacks are available — the Sengalese Spiced Candied Peanuts are particularly good — with more to come in that department as well.
So Eat Offbeat is an instant Chelsea neighborhood go-to — if you work upstairs at Google, your lunch is sorted for the foreseeable future — but there's also a bigger picture here. "We have three goals in mind at Eat Offbeat," said Kahi. "The first is to create quality jobs for talented refugees who want to be in the food industry. The second is to build bridges, to connect us with customers eating our food in the home, the office, and now, at Chelsea Market. And the third goal ultimately is about changing the narrative around refugees, and around immigration. We're here to add value to the city."
Eat Offbeat is located within the Chelsea Market concourse, closer to the Tenth Avenue entrance and on the 16th Street side, and is currently open on Wednesday through Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. (eatoffbeat.com)