Braai: Both Fun and Game
If there's anything that will make a jaded food city perk up, it's word that a new restaurant will be serving zebra. Yes, wrote The New York Times, zebra would be on the menu at Braai, the new South African barbecue spot in Hell's Kitchen. On the way over, we discussed animals we'd eaten (alligator) and animals we hadn't, at least to our knowledge (horse), and what zebra might taste like (chicken?).
All the speculation was moot, as Braai turns out to specialize in game not quite as exotic as all that. Ostrich, venison, ox, and lamb roam the meat-heavy, fancied-up menu. Co-owner Tanya Hira says the zebra was a misunderstanding—she had mentioned zebra-print wood in the back room, not zebra on the menu: "I'm pretty sure the American government would not allow that," she said. So black-and-white steaks will not be the next big thing after all.
Braai (rhymes with "eye") is a South African barbecue tradition that started with the Afrikaners (South Africans of European, usually Dutch, descent), and spread to become a much-loved custom among all South Africans. The appeal of braai is not unlike that of an American-backyard barbecue: a group gathered around a fragrant grill, charred meat, side dishes—a chance for men to flamboyantly wrangle a fire. But South Africa is temperate all year, so the braai-ing is nonstop.
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Hira and her South African fiancé, Brett Curtin, own both Braai and Xai Xai Wine Bar down the street. Hira, who has been to South Africa with Curtin several times, says that you can't visit without attending at least one braai. There's even a National Braai Day, an official holiday during which all South Africans are honor-bound to braai. And as luck would have it, Braai Day is next week, September 24—so perhaps you should get in the spirit and eat some wood-grilled beastie.
As an addition to New York's barbecue scene—Asian, Texan, Argentinean, et. al—Braai seems to be unique. As far as I can tell, it's the only Manhattan restaurant that focuses on South African 'cue. (Madiba, in Brooklyn, has a few braai-ed dishes.) With a faux-thatched roof, rough wood, and animal prints everywhere, the restaurant flirts with theme-park-dom, but you can't blame them for working what they've got.
The chef (or braai master), Armando Mart, grills over ysterhout wood, which comes from an African olive tree. (Hira prefers to simply call it "braai wood.") The results are generally very good, as long as you stick with the meat—this is not the place to bring your new vegetarian girlfriend. Go for the meatiest of options; other dishes are a bit of a toss-up and are mostly marred by a tendency to torture the food into stacked, squeeze-bottled, elaborate contortions.
The menu headers are written in Afrikaans, and you can almost make sense of them if you say them out loud: "Sop en Slaa" is soup and salad; "Istatah" are starters; and "Main Kos" are main courses. There's also a section of mini-sosaties—or marinated, grilled kebabs.
The salads are skippable—aren't they always at a barbecue? The braai salad, a mix of orange segments (the menu claims blood oranges, which they were not), goat cheese, and roasted garlic over frisée is indistinguishable from a salad from Au Bon Pain.
Matters improve considerably when you get to the mini-sosaties. These skewers come in five varieties: vegetarian paneer cheese, chicken, mutton, ostrich, and venison, each with a collection of six sambals on the side. Choose the ostrich or venison—both are smoky and succulent, glazed with a slightly spicy, tart marinade. The chunks of meat share space on the skewers with beautifully charred dried apricots, bell peppers, and onions.
The accompanying sambals—apricot chutney, cucumber yogurt, mango salsa, "monkeygland" peanut—are presumably included so that you can dip your kebab into them. But they arrive in minuscule dollops on a silly, long, white rectangular plate that barely fits on the table. It looks fancy but it doesn't function very well if you actually would like to eat the sambals.
Other starters run from grilled South African lobster tails to deviled chicken livers, samosas, and lamb sausage. The chicken livers come in a cast-iron crock, cooked perfectly, browned on the outside, pink inside. The promised peri-peri gravy was awfully mild—in fact, Braai could amp up all its spice levels across the board.
The mutton-wors (lamb sausage) starter also comes in one of the little rough-hewn iron pots, wrapped around itself in a thin coil and bobbing in a yogurt-guava sauce with roasted sweet potato and bok choy. It sounds like an odd mix, but it works. The sausage, which is house-made, is rich, loose, and satisfying in its snappy lamb casing.
The diminutive samosas ("samoosas" in Afrikaans) are tasty enough, but why are they speared on a toothpick and made to balance on top of each other, surrounded by mysterious pools and swirls of sauce? We dismantled the sculpture and crunched the samosas down.
After the hit-or-miss contortions of the starters, the meaty main courses are a treat. The well-traveled prawns, flown in from Mozambique, are the lone seafood option. These giant crustaceans are supposedly marinated in peri-peri, although they tasted more of butter and garlic to me (not that there's anything wrong with butter and garlic). The prawns are butterflied and grilled, and served in their shells. "Don't order this on a first date," noted the prawn-lover, who was practically neck-deep in them, prying the buttery flesh out of the shells with his hands.
Ostrich and venison steaks come in massive, wood-smoked hunks, cooked nicely between medium and medium-rare. The server won't ask how you'd like one cooked—perhaps the chef figures (rightly) that he knows more about cooking ostrich and venison than the average New Yorker. The two creatures look so different when alive that it's surprising to notice how similar they taste—mildly gamey, pinkly mineral, and lean.
Many main dishes are served with one of the mild corn dishes that are common to sub-Saharan Africa. There's pap, which the menu helpfully translates as "polenta," and samp, which is very much like hominy. Samp is stewed with beans into a delicious, soupy side dish that comes with the lush oxtail stew.
For dessert, go for the malva pudding, which reminded me of sticky toffee pudding—a soft, honeyed sponge cake, warm and gooey, in a pool of pastry cream with a small ball of vanilla ice cream. Skip the koeksisters (South African doughnuts) just on principle: The fried dough is skewered and balanced vertically on a large toothpick at such a precarious angle that the server has to hold it in place while he carries it over to you. Now that the zebras are off the hook, let's start a campaign to free the doughnuts—at least until we eat them.
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