Chef team to open Chinese restaurant Bunny Bunny in Eastern Market

Former Voyager chefs Justin Tootla and Jennifer Jackson hope to donate partial profits to community organizations; they're also working on a new cafe in Detroit's Core City neighborhood

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

Cuisine from various regions of China are on the menu at new Eastern Market restaurant Bunny Bunny.

Opening Wednesday for carryout only, it's the latest project from chefs Justin Tootla and Jennifer Jackson, and it's one of two new spots they're working on. 

The culinary team was last seen at Voyager, an award-winning seafood restaurant in Ferndale. With Bunny Bunny, they'll delve deep into Chinese food and American-style Chinese food, something they've wanted to bring to their Detroit neighborhood for a while. 

Chef and restaurant owners Jennifer Jackson and Justin Tootla are opening Chinese restaurant Bunny Bunny in Eastern Market.

The menu will be broken into regions. From north China, the menu will showcase cumin lamb with onions, garlic and chilis and pai huang gua, a smashed cucumber dish served cold with cloud ear mushrooms in chili oil. Eastern Chinese dishes include pork and chive dumplings, stir-fried duck and salt-and-pepper tofu. 

Twice-cooked pork, dry-fried eels and potato thread salad are listed for central China and wonton noodle soup, sweet and sour pork, Hainan chicken and rice and beef chow fun is on the southern portion of the menu. 

"It's challenging and exciting this new direction we're taking with a focus on regional Chinese food," Tootla said, adding that there will be some "American staples" on the menu like egg rolls. 

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It won't be Tootla and Jackson's first time with this cuisine. Before coming to the Detroit area, they ran a Chinese restaurant attached to popular Lost Lake Bar in Chicago. Their time there was cut short by a fire and Tootla said they felt they weren't finished cooking this type of food. (They've also worked at nationally known restaurants Chez Panisse, Prune and Le Bernardin.) 

"We loved our time there," he said of Thank You Chinese in Chicago. "We've always looked for opportunities to explore this cuisine in Detroit and after a couple years we've found one."

They promise that these aren't chef-y versions of Chinese food, or fusion cuisine. 

"We're approaching this food as students," said Tootla. "There's no interpretation as far as representation goes. This isn't going to be Chinese food through the lens of classically trained chefs. It's really kind of textbook recipes. We're doing a lot of research, any type of medium we can get our hands on."

This includes sourcing ingredients from China that aren't typically found in restaurants in Metro Detroit. Actually getting their hands on these ingredients has been one of the many challenges of opening a restaurant during a pandemic.

Safety and social distancing is one of the reasons Bunny Bunny will open next week with carryout and delivery service only, and just two other employees will join them working. Eventually they'll add cocktails to-go, but Tootla and Jackson say they won't open the '80s retro-inspired dining room until things are much safer. 

The restaurateurs are also employing a charity element to Bunny Bunny, partnering with the Bear Hug Foundation, Association of Chinese Americans, Gleaners Food Bank and the Ruth Ellis Center. They plan to donate a portion of profits to these groups to start, with a goal of one day becoming a totally nonprofit restaurant. 

Dishes from Bunny Bunny, a new Chinese restaurant opening in Eastern Market that aims to one day be a nonprofit business.

While they've gotten Bunny Bunny up and running, the two are also working on a still unnamed cafe in Detroit's Core City neighborhood. They'll be taking over the Pantry, an event space run by Magnet restaurant (a sister restaurant to Corktown's Takoi).

Details for the "all day cafe" are still being ironed out, but they want to serve breakfast sandwiches and some of Jackson's southern recipes, and have a liquor license. Tootla said one goal of this cafe space will be to serve the neighborhood and be open six to seven days a week. 

Bunny Bunny, 1454 Gratiot in Detroit, is expected to open for carryout and delivery via the Postmates app on Wednesday. Call (313) 947-6122 or visit Hours will be 4-9 p.m. Wed.-Fri. and noon-9 p.m. Sat.

Twitter: @melodybaetens