Walking into Madiba is like crashing a
party thrown by the friendliest people in town.
You’re greeted with, "Welcome. We’re so happy you’re here!" The hostess chats with you on the way to your table, then owner Mark Henegan describes the history of the restaurant. Your waiter and host, Ridley, stops at the table and quizzes you about the ingredients in the dishes, and the hostess recommends her favorite dessert. All that talk is enough to make a native New Yorker feel homesick for South Africa.
Madiba is the only South African restaurant in the city. It bills itself as a "shabeen," or roughly translated, a "beer bar" where music plays late into the night. In its two years, Madiba has become a gathering spot for the Fort Greene community, and a home away from home for transplanted South Afrikaans. Performers as diverse as Ladysmith Black Mambazo and cast members from "The Lion King" entertain regularly, and on the evening we were there, Paul Simon’s band was quietly tuning instruments and settling in for a long night of music.
Henegan, who hails from Durban, has filled his storefront restaurant with plenty of reminders of home. An enormous flag with Nelson Mandela’s image hangs center stage. Tables are rustic wood or vintage enamel, and no two chairs are the same. Let the bartender mix you a cocktail or order one of the South African wines, (reasonably priced and lavishly described on the menu), and your drink will arrive in a Mason jar.
The room, with its mismatched everything, works well with Henegan’s vibrant dishes. A blend of Indian, Dutch, Malaysian, Portuguese and tribal influences means you’ll find chicken livers peri-peri (a hot, red Portuguese pepper) with bacon on toast, along with Cape Malay curried mussels. The Safari platter (dried sausages and fruit) overflowed with biltong (chewy strips of dried meat), Droewors (South African "Slim Jims" redolent of coriander) and dried prunes, apricots and dates. It’s nibbly food, to be savored during and between courses - a robust trio of salty, sweet and richly spiced flavors.
To breathe in the heady aromas emanating from Madiba’s kitchen is reason enough for a visit. Our curried potato soup or isobho (soup of the day) arrived at our table wafting clouds of curry. The creamy puree was deeply flavored with roasted coriander, ginger and black pepper - a delicious bowl of pure comfort. The Boerewors roll, a moist beef sausage flavored with coriander, was served with a big, meaty portabella mushroom napped in a garlic and cilantro sauce. The rough texture of the sausage brought out the silkiness of the mushroom, and the astringent quality of the cilantro freshened the dish.
Order the traditional Durban bunny chow and you get laughter along with your entree. A large, square loaf of bread is hollowed out and filled with the curried chow. Sitting atop the loaf is a big hunk of crustless bread. The dish resembles a large rabbit, head down and fluffy tail waving in the air.
We ordered the chicken chow. (Mutton chow is another option, but the sound of it didn’t thrill me.) The sauce, heavily spiced but not overpowering, was a little drier then the curries we’re accustomed to here.
Oxtails have been appearing on menus recently and for good reason. They’re a cheap cut of meat that becomes fork tender and savory after long, slow cooking. Madiba’s oxtails are first braised then baked, rendering the meat lushly soft. The winy stew that bounds the oxtails had plenty of mellow garlic flavor. Samp, which is pressed corn, is the underpinning for many South African dishes. Here it’s stewed with lots of long-cooked sweet onions and pinto beans. Dip a forkful of the samp into the stew, take a small piece of the tender oxtail, and the abundance of flavors and textures add up to South African-style Nirvana.
Milk custard tarts and puddings reflect a quieter, Dutch and English sensibility. Nana’s milk tart, (our hostess’ favorite), can be compared to the little black dress. Accessorize it, dress it up or down, wear it anywhere and it’s always perfect. Subtly flavored compared to the rest of the meal, the tart had a light, fluffy consistency. Utterly simple in flavor and presentation - a little dollop of whipped cream on the side dressed it up slightly - it tasted like rice pudding without the rice. It may have lacked a theatrical, big blast of flavor and it wasn’t especially sweet, but I’d return to Madiba just to order it.
Malva pudding, a baked pudding of sweet condensed milk flavored with apricot, was too rich for me, but my dining companion adored it.
Dining at Madiba is an adventure of the familiar and exotic. Here, a meal goes way beyond the food - it’s an event where the food, as good as it is, is out-shined by the hospitality.
Shabeen? Oh, yes, stay awhile, a good time is guaranteed.
Madiba (195 DeKalb Ave. between Adelphi and Carlton streets) accepts American Express, Diners Club, Discover, MasterCard and Visa. Entrees: $12 to $21. For reservations, call (718) 855-9190. www.madibaweb.com.