Mark and Jenny Henegan first brought this city food from their native South Africa more than fifteen years ago, when they opened the original Madiba in Fort Greene. In that restaurant, portraits of Mandela line brick walls, and, in the summer, a neighborhood crowd spills out onto the patio. If you’re going to eat South African food in this town, it’s one of the only places to go. It’s also the best. And so it’s worth knowing that the restaurant opened a second outpost in Harlem (46 West 116th Street, 212-828-MIST) about a month ago, where you can get the same specialties, albeit in a strikingly different atmosphere.
The original Madiba was modeled after a shebeen, an informal type of restaurant you can find in South African towns. It exudes a casual vibe befitting of its neighborhood-joint status. The Harlem restaurant, on the other hand, inhabits the lobby of an apartment building, and is part of a “culinary and entertainment collaborative lifestyle experience,” which means you’ll find a cafe (also operated by Madiba), co-working space, a theater, and studios operating out of the same address.
The restaurant itself is slightly broken up; you enter through the bar, where you can perch with a glass of South African wine and order from the regular menu, then cross through part of the lobby to get to the dining room, where a pair of hostesses preside over the entrance. The space is cavernous and sparse, and while a few paintings and artifacts hang on the white walls, it has a ways to go before it will offer the same warmth of the original.
Don’t put too much stock in the awkward space, though, because the food is just as good as it is in Fort Greene. South African food borrows from a variety of culinary traditions, including cooking native to the region, European cuisine brought there by colonizers, and the food of Indo-Asian slaves. Food is vibrant and flavorful, and it shares characteristics with Indian and Indonesian cuisine.
Madiba offers a nice cross-section of South African specialties. Start with some potato-and-pea-stuffed samoosas; peri-peri chicken wings (or chicken livers, if you’re more into offal), which are slathered with spicy peri-peri sauce; and maybe a little pungent ostrich carpaccio. Convince your table to share things, and then try the oxtail potjie-kos bredie, a hearty stew, and the bunny chow, a dark curry served, as it is in South Africa, in a hollowed-out loaf of bread.
Pair your meal to a South African chenin blanc or pinot noir; the restaurant is attempting to amass an expansive South African wine list. You’ll also find craft beer pouring on tap, but Madiba Harlem serves no liquor.
The restaurant is open for brunch, lunch, and dinner.