South Beach Safari
Madiba has come to South Beach by way of South Africa, with a stopover at Fort Greene, Brooklyn which is where Mark and Jenny Henegan, with long-time friend Serge Jules, opened their first Madiba in 1999. Their new establishment made its debut this past September in the neighborhood once referred to as the Purdy area but now called Sunset Harbour.
Madiba, which means "son of Africa" (and is Nelson Mandela's nickname), is really more of a complex than a restaurant. On the first floor is a chic SoBe safari lounge pulsating with animalistic rhythms (club music), the space fashioned with day beds, white leather chairs, and eclectic African/East Indian appointments, and stocked with the usual menagerie of fashionable people. Upstairs is the 80-seat eatery modeled at least in concept on a shebeen, a social hall in a South African township where Afrikaners gather and partake of food and drink. This model, however, looks more like an Amish meeting place, with Pennsylvania Dutch furnishings, hanging kerosene lamps, and all sorts of decidedly rustic accents including wooden cupboards and shelves stocked with South African foodstuffs (cereals, spices, jams, et cetera) that form a mini general store in a corner of the room. One of three bars occupies the left side of the restaurant, and wraparound windows on the opposite end allow sunlight to stream in, giving the restaurant an open, breezy feel; a more sultry air circulates when the lighting is dimmed after dusk. Madiba also features four separate rooms for private functions. This is an incredibly ambitious place.
The South African cuisine here also reaches high, although in a low-end, homestyle sort of way. Dishes reflect the country's diverse culinary influences, which are composed of occupiers (French, Dutch, British, Portuguese), immigrants (Asian, East Indian), African tribes (Xhosa, Sotho, Zulu), and the native San people. The food is distinctively spiced with coriander, cilantro, curry, thyme, and mint, and many dishes impart a pleasing, chili-fueled piquancy. The peri-peri, for instance, a red-hot Portuguese chili, fires up a starter of chicken livers and likewise ignites a main course of "Mozambique-style" prawns. The trio of whole, flattened, thyme-and-coriander-crusted crustaceans were seared to spicy succulence, with the incendiary peri-peri sauce on the side.
Unfortunately the kitchen, though in its infancy, has so far been inconsistent. Soup of the day pumpkin came in a bowl so overstocked with nuts and dried fruit that the smoothly puréed squash coated them like a sauce. Let's hope you don't follow this with the "safari platter," which also boasts nuts (mostly salted peanuts) and dried fruit (apples, apricots, prunes) but whose centerpiece is made-on-the-premises, allspice-speckled, cured, salted, and dried beef tenderloin that, like the jerky it mimics, comes in both sausage and sliced form (called droewors and biltong). It's an undeniably tasty jerky, but this plate works better as a bar snack than a starter maybe with a bottle of African Castle beer or one of the numerous South African wines (prices range from $20 to $200 per bottle, $6 to $10 per glass).
Chilled pickled fillets of Cape Capensis (hake) comprise a more sensible appetizer, the bacalaolike fish bringing a briny bite balanced by a couple of sweet, sugar-and-cinnamon-dusted pumpkin fritters. Lean ostrich carpaccio should satisfy the intrepid gastronomic traveler, as would "curried samoosas," which as far as I can tell are the same as samosas but with the extra o. More timid tasters can opt for fried calamari with tartar sauce, mussels in white wine and saffron broth, or lemon-buttered lobster tail imported from Tristan (located about 400 miles from Cape Town).
A main course of Durban "bunny chow" has nothing to do with rabbits but is rather a choice of chicken, mutton, or vegetables in a creamy, spicy red curry sauce and served in a hollowed half-loaf of white bread. The presentation might sound as cute as a bunny, but it was once common in Durban for blacks denied access to restaurants to use this method as a means to carry out food. Stew of the day on this occasion oxtail appeared in its own traditional receptacle, a three-leg cast-iron pot. The braised meat was tenderly strewn in a pungent sweet/spicy sauce but could have used some vegetables other than one lone cube of potato. Bobotie, Cape Malay's version of moussaka, arrived on a conventional plate, the layer of minced beef spiked with savory spices, the custard topping as desiccated as a desert. At least an accompanying cone of yellow rice was moist and tastily jazzed with turmeric, saffron, and raisins.
As with the starters, Madiba provides more accessible entrée choices too: fish (hake) and chips; a yebo burger (beef); and char-grilled steak or baby-back ribs, both available with monkey gland sauce (no animal parts involved, just red wine, dried fruit, ketchup, and chutney).
Side dishes read like the names of South African musical genres: samp, uputhu, and chaka-laka. The first is cracked hominy (cornmeal), mildly flavored and texturally similar to barley. Uputhu is also cornmeal but in mush form, slightly wetted with a parsimonious pinch of sautéed tomatoes, onions, and garlic. If you're looking to kick it up a notch, go with the spicy chaka-laka medley of baked beans, carrots, and tomatoes. You can't go wrong with pure and simple corn on the cob, steamed in the husk and served with butter and salt.
Then again, it's anybody's guess when the corn will actually arrive at the table. The notion of informal service is taken to extremes here the servers slouching, chatting, and moving with all the speed of democracy. Meanwhile, meals came from the kitchen willy-nilly; my main course of oxtail stew was served as an appetizer along with the safari platter, followed by my dinnermate's prawn entrée chaperoned by a side dish. Waiters seem to have been hired according to some intangible hipness index as opposed to the clumsy old yardstick of experience and skills.
Even with its lackluster service, Madiba's cordial, laid-back environment is a nice change of pace from the slick corporate establishments that keep replicating around town. The cuisine is gratifying, the prices moderate, the dining experience unique reason enough to give Madiba a visit, but if you need another: A percentage of the restaurant's proceeds benefits the people of South Africa.
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