A Year In Food

From New York to Costa Rica to Europe to California: 365 Days of Dining Out

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Jul. 7.




Dinner -

i-Shebeen Madiba - 195 DeKalb Ave., Fort Greene, Brooklyn
Salmon cake topped with caviar, Prawns Peri-Peri, Chicken Breyani, Mom's Tipsy Tart, a ginger beer, Rooibos tea
$42

There are probably tens of thousands of Chinese restaurants in New York. Thai, Indian and Mexican restaurants of varying quality seem to speckle every neighborhood too. But when it comes to African food, the options are still quite limited. I've already dipped my injera in berbere-sauced Tibs Wat at the handful of Ethopian restaurants that made their way downtown and poured Maggi on grilled snapper and couscous at the Senegalese La Marmitte in Harlem. Enjoying all of these experiences, I was excited to visit Vince's pick of Madiba, New York's one and only South African offering.

Located in Fort Greene, a west Brooklyn neighborhood known for its large Caribbean and African populations, Madiba turned out to be surprisingly big and bustling. It was decorated with loads of nationalistic kitsch, from a sprawling display of the flag to grinning portraits of Nelson Mandela. (The restaurant's name itself refers to the former President and means "Son of Africa and Father of the Nation.") In another context, all of the decorations might have seemed tacky or gimmicky, but here, they seemed like a genuine source of pride.

The menu too built on this theme, parsing parts of South African culture and including the lyrics to the national anthem. The wide use of asterisks denoted products that were native to South Africa and from my restricted knowledge, the food seemed faithful to its origin.

I started with the salmon cake, a variation on crabcake that worked just as well with the fish. Containing red and green peppers and onions and topped with an anthill of caviar, the main flavor was still the salmon, which was light and pink inside. Overall, I enjoyed the cake although I'd probably order something else next time. Even though my appetizer was well made, it failed to excite.

Luckily, the main courses were more intriguing. Vince and I split the Prawns Peri-Peri, which were glossed with the tangy eponymous sauce South African cuisine is known for. It gave the large pieces of seafood some distinction and a welcome spice, although they could have used more of it, as the peri-peri taste only came through on top. The prawns, grilled to just the right level of char, and the sides of salad and rice made this a solid dish though.

The second main we split was the chicken breyani, a well-seasoned rice and lentil stew. Quirkily, it also came with two chunks of banana and half of a boiled egg. It reminded me of other traditions, but of everything we had, it seemed the most uniquely African. The stew was filling with lots of chicken and we had no trouble finishing it. Still, like the salmon cake, it satisfied but didn't exactly wow. It was pretty good rather than amazing, and it isn't something I would see myself craving a week from now.

The best course I had came at the end. Called Mom's Tipsy Tart, this dessert filled with dates and nuts and surrounded by a brandy sauce was an effortless standout. Besides being delicious and very light, it was exotic and new, reinventing familiar flavors by combining them. The pleasantly alcoholic syrup seemed destined for the dates, and the addition of ice cream was only one more terrific texture and taste among many.

In the end, Madiba proved to be a worthwhile experience, with its large, inviting space and welcoming waiters. Even without the South African musicians that play on select nights, the mood at the shebeen was still fun and convivial. As it got later, more people came in to fill up the room and the patio outside. Many of them were clearly regulars, frequently meeting here for a meal or to have drinks. It was nice to see, that in a city of so many overlapping possibilities, that there was still one restaurant in this community that was one of a kind. 7/10

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