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Braai

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It’s not dinner at the zoo. It’s dinner in Hell’s Kitchen.

329 W. 51st St.,
between Eighth and Ninth Aves., (212) 315-3315
Sun.-Wed., 5 p.m.-1a.m.;
Thu.-Sat., 5 p.m.-3 a.m.
Cuisine: African barbecue
Vibe: Funky Hell’s
Kitchen spot.
Occasion: Casual date, group dinner.
Don’t Miss Dish:
Venison sosoties & chicken bobotie.
Average Price:
Appetizers, $12;
entrees, $23; dessert, $8.
Reservations: Recommended

Do you ever read the menu online before you go to a restaurant? It’s a bad idea, at least at Braai.

I skipped lunch and all of my mid-afternoon snacks because I planned to take down a barbecued ostrich that evening.

And what did I get? I got one dainty skewer of overcooked ostrich, domestically raised. I didn’t want domestically raised. I had my heart set on ostrich right off the veldt.

And where’s the antelope? I came for antelope. There was talk of zebra in the papers, too. But the only black-and-white- striped object at Braai is a zebrawood table in the brandy room. So it’s not dinner at the zoo … it’s in Hell’s Kitchen.

Braai looks like an African date-hut – mood lighting, rose petals scattered on the tables, a reed canopy overheard and lots of dripping candles. There’s also a lady at the bar getting her face painted. Turns out she’s the hostess. Did I mention the music? Way too much music.

Here’s a rule for restaurants: Live music means you’re trying to hide the food. It’s like the strolling violinist or the mariachi band. Please, just stroll away.

The best thing about Braai may be the wine list. It’s exclusively South African.
I especially liked the FMC Chenin Blanc 2005 – a crisp, complex white
wine with hints of honey and vanilla. It’s not cheap. A half bottle is
$55, worth the splurge. So is the Neil Ellis
Cabernet Sauvignon 2003. You can also try a cocktail made with African
rum or one of the house-infused brandies, a welcome by-product of the
African surplus of grapes.

Okay, let’s talk about the barbecue.
If you order meat, insist on medium rare. No more. Otherwise, it will
taste like beef jerky, or the game version called biltong in South
Africa.

If you want venison, order the appetizer. It’s
marinated in rooibos syrup and speared with dried apricots, green
peppers and onions.

Lamb? Order the mutton-wors – lamb sausage served over a warm yogurt-guava sauce.

One
reason to visit this restaurant is to learn a whole new culinary
vocabulary. I know my sosoties, but not my bobotie. Sosoties are
skewers of marinated meat. Bobotie is the offspring of meatloaf and
shepherd’s pie.

I had the chicken bobotie. It reminded me of
gastropub grub. It was full of raisins, shredded carrots, and chutney.
And there was an egg on top. Also worth ordering – the prawns peri-peri
and the boerewors (beef & pork sausage), but just for the side of
white corn “polenta” with tomato gravy on top.

And don’t miss
the malva pudding – the African version of banana pudding, with
caramelized bananas, vanilla ice cream and custard made from an African
liqueur called Amarula.

It’s not easy to pull off Afrikaans
barbecue in Hell’s Kitchen. Clearly, they’re adapting a South African
tradition for American tastes – and American meats. And in the kitchen,
the chef – Armando Martinez
– is native American. The menu may sound like fusion, but it’s no more
complicated than the fusion involved in real South African barbecue.

Just imagine – Malaysian, Indian, Afrikaans and wild game. Minus the antelope and zebra.

 

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