For nearly two decades, New York diners have been regaled with the fascinating and varied cuisines of West Africa, most notably Senegalese, Guinean, Nigerian, Ghanaian, and Liberian. We’ve nearly had our fill of East African, too—though, annoyingly, every Ethiopian menu is nearly the same. Food from the southern reaches of the continent has proved a harder coconut to crack, but we’ve gradually developed a small collection of restaurants with culinary origins in the Republic of South Africa, featuring a crazy combination of African, English, Dutch, Malaysian, Portuguese, and Indian influences.
First to arrive 13 years ago was Fort Greene’s Madiba, an eye-opening spot decorated like a Quonset hut, emphasizing the Voortrekker cuisine of the Dutch settlers known as Boers, who migrated northward in the 19th century, fleeing drought, the English, and militant African tribes. Then, around four years ago, a wine bar named Xai Xai appeared, and soon thereafter a barbecue, Braai, on the same block of West 51st Street. And now we have another South African establishment: Kaia, a wine bar on the Upper East Side with an ambitious menu. The single square room is kept dark and spare, furnished with both raised and normal-height tables occupied mainly by timorous couples who seem to be on first OkCupid dates and flocks of females (a wine-bar phenomenon not too hard to figure out).
The food at Kaia (“hut” in Zulu) flaunts remarkable flavors. Among charcuterie choices, find two types of South African preserved beef: biltong (dark curls of pungent, white-veined flesh dry as the desert); and droëwors (like Slim Jims, only good). Both are Boer staples, said to be vestiges of the above-mentioned Great Trek, in which no fresh food could be carried. Even today, dehydration serves as a convenient method of preservation in a continent short on refrigeration. Bargain-priced at $5, these dried meats sit atop a gravel of raisins and nuts on handsome wooden plates. The menu’s other preserved-meat selections feature domestic hams and salamis in French and Italian styles, though they clash with the African theme of the restaurant.
Classic South African bar snacks include miniature samosas hailing from Durban (three for $8) on a bed of something that tastes like sweet sauerkraut, and a trio of sliders composed of ground ostrich, elk, and chicken. Priced around $7 apiece, they’re interesting but too expensive. When Kaia shifts gears and starts doing entrées, it begins to seem more like a restaurant than a wine bar. Take bunny chow ($17), a specialty of the former Transvaal Province. Although sounding like kibble for a pet, the ingenious dish features chicken curry dumped into a hollowed-out loaf of white bread. The curry has to be pretty good to stand up to such an expanse of dough—and it does.
Similarly delightful is Boerewors rol ($8), a swollen gray sausage infinitely brightened both culinarily and linguistically by its topping of chakalaka, a coarse-textured tomato condiment associated with Johannesburg. I’d also recommend beesstert potjie ($16), an oxtail stew darkly pooled in a cast-iron pot like witches use—though the portion is small for the price. The real surprise is not the vessel, but the hominy inside, which suggests parallels between Boer cuisine and Mexican cooking. Some entrées flop, including a smallish square of meat loaf topped with béchamel called bobotie ($15). One evening, it tasted like it had undertaken its own Great Trek in the refrigerator.
As an antidote to all this meatiness, there’s a salad of blood oranges tossed with green olives in a vinaigrette that leaves the citrus still sweet. And there’s also a toasted-cheese sandwich served with parsnip soup that has no African antecedent I can find. The wine list is a pleasing mix of vintages from South Africa and other underappreciated producing countries—including Morocco, Argentina, and Chile. Unfortunately, the bottles are way too pricey (most $40 and over). If you’re brave enough to explore the frontiers of wine, you should get some sort of concession over the usual price level of Italian, California, and French products in other wine bars. Here, you don’t.
All pretense of African-ness falls away with the beer selection, which is exclusively devoted to micro American brews. Don’t they make beer in South Africa? Similarly, the extensive cheese selection (15 choices, $4 to $7) derives mainly from Vermont and New Hampshire. While this might cheer your locavoric soul, you might also get cultural whiplash switching from African entrées to American cheeses to South American wines and back again.
At least it helps to explain why the place seems more appealing to dating singles than actual South Africans.
For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.