I’ve only ever been to one shebeen, when I was a teenager. It was owned by a gentle, permanently stoned poet called Zeke, and occupied one bare room of his mother’s house in a township on the South African coast. Zeke’s shebeen consisted of a fridge, several plastic patio chairs and twenty cases of Lion lager, and on more than one occasion I found my way through the township’s anonymous streets to the house by following the smell of the fragrant, blue dope smoke that escaped from its windows.
Madiba is a world away: they don’t let you smoke dope, for a start. The restaurant is on Dekalb Avenue in Brooklyn, a short subway or bus ride from Central Manhattan, and was filling up by the time we arrived, early on a drizzly Saturday night. The interior is shebeen-chic—kitchen tables and chairs, and jam-jars instead of drinking glasses—while the lighting is rather like Jade Goody—dim, starts off cute, but quickly becomes irritating. (Later we watched, trying not to snigger, as guests on a nearby table passed round a miniature keyring-torch to read the menu.)
Since all three South African beers on the wine list were out of stock, the waiter suggested that we tried Krait beer, which he described, straight-faced, as Indian beer brewed in South Africa. In fact, it is British—Krait is the export version of Cobra—and is brewed in Poland, as he could have realised if he read the label. Sadly, the spelling mistakes and grammatical errors that litter the menu suggest that the ability to read, write or use the spell-check function are not seen as a priority by Madiba’s owners (the web site boasts proudly, “Our restaurants boast a South African atmosphere and traditionally prepared specialities like none other offering The South African Experience, first of its kind, in the United StatesMadiba [sic]”, while the menu offers, among other things, mushroom saurce, baked potatoe and yello rice).
The menu covers South African cuisine from traditional Cape Dutch and Malay dishes like bobotie and pickled fish, to Indian cuisine like samosas and breyani, and includes home-style dishes from the black culinary tradition like uputhu (maize porridge) and chakalaka (a sort of spiced vegetable salad) that rarely appear on restaurant menus even in South Africa. The South African wine list offers a reasonable selection from US$28 (£15) per bottle upwards.
I chose hake and chips with calamari, while my companion had mutton curry bunny chow. The curry was drier than most Durban versions, but tasty and presented in a generous half-loaf of brown bread. The large portion of hake was perfectly cooked, with wonderful, vinegary chips wittily served in a newspaper wrap, but the calamari rings had been hastily dumped into the fryer in a single handful and had fused into an inedible accretion of over-seasoned batter the size and shape of a Scotch egg.
From a list of desserts that included koeksisters and Dom Pedro (an ice cream confection known as the alcoholic’s milkshake) we chose malva pudding and melktert. The melktert was superb: a thick, creamy filling topped with swirls of cinnamon. The malva pudding was served with a rich rum sauce, also excellent.
Our bill appeared while we were eating pudding. Irritating, and also poor business practice, since high profit margins make after-dinner coffee and drinks lucrative sale items. Not that the utterly disgusting coffee served by Madiba would encourage any customer to linger. Including a cash tip of slightly over 15%, the bill came to US$85, or about £45 for two main courses, two puddings, three bottles of beer, and one cup of coffee. After paying the bill I discovered that US$2 had been added, presumably in error, to the credit card total. Perhaps this was the percentage of its proceeds that the restaurant tells us it “is honoured… to give… back to the people of South Africa”, although if you are making a boast like that on your web site it might be more convincing if you tell your public precisely what percentage you are donating, and to whom.
Dinner at Madiba isn’t the most expensive meal you’ll ever eat in New York, but the bill was rendered bearable only by the weakness of the dollar against the pound: some months earlier, when the dollar was stronger, the same meal would have cost nearly £55. That is a lot of money to pay for street food. At Zeke’s, his mother used to make you a plate of golden uputhu and tasty tripe stew for a couple of rand. And I bet she knew how to spell sauce.
195 Dekalb Avenue
United States of America
Tel: (718) 855 9190