I have always said that South Africans are a very outward-looking nation. For better or for worse, we always believe that if it’s from somewhere else, it’s got to be better – whether it’s movies, clothes, music… or restaurants. How else can you explain the popularity of the Hard Rock Cafe, McDonalds or the ill-fated Planet Hollywood?! We are masters at being self- deprecating about all aspects of our country which means that it always comes as a pleasant surprise when our exports make good overseas – and one Cape Town restaurant has been doing just that.
In 2005, Sabi Sabhawal opened Haiku restaurant in Cape Town’s rejuvenated CBD. You may remember his name as the man behind the hugely succesful and acclaimed Bukhara, arguably Cape Town’s top Indian restaurant for the past decade. The idea behind Haiku was to serve Pan-Asian food in tapas-sized portions, and I would imagine they had their work cut out for them convincing the generation who grew up on Spur portions of the wisdom of many little portions… They also follow the rather annoying London trend of bookign two sittings – so you can only dine at 18h30 or 21h00. I didn’t know how many South Africans would fall for that one (here in London we accept it like meek lambs…), but the gamble paid off handsomely and in November 2005 Haiku was voted South Africa’s best new restaurant for the year in the prestigious Eat Out Johnnie Walker awards.
Wasting no time and capitalising on the veritable freeway of human traffic between London and Cape Town these days, Sabhawal recently opened up another Haiku in London, tucked away in an unpromising location just off Oxford Circus. Although I have not been there, I hear that things run identically to the operation back home and that some staff members were brought across from Cape Town to ensure continuity and consistency. Even the decor has been faithfully reproduced. Far from being a jumble of indiscriminately-thrown-together Asian dishes, the menu is separated into distinct dish types: sushi, sashimi, dim sum, grilled dishes, curries and wok-fried dishes. Each category of dish has its own section in the kitchen: a Japanese chef in charge of the sushi and the robata (Japanese grill) dishes, Chinese chefs from Hong Kong in the wok section and preparing dim sum, Indian chefs creating the tandoor dishes, and so on.
But of course, the question is whether, in London’s super competitive restaurant scene, this newcomer from the colonies can cut the mustard. Many of you will be familiar with AA Gill, the Sunday Times’ restaurant critic and one of the most eloquent writers I know. And if you know AA Gill, you will know that the man is not easily impressed and does not suffer fools or foodie fads gladly. Two weeks ago, he reviewed the London branch of Haiku and here are two excerpts from his hugely amusing review:
The menu is everything I hate and despise about modern pick’n’mix international food: a South African restaurant with a bogus Japanese name that offers sushi, dim sum, tempura, tandoori, wok dishes, Korean, Indian, Thai curries, Malay and Singaporean noodles. There are more than 150 dishes on the menu, not including dessert. It’s an Asian variety that doesn’t offer choice so much as claustrophobia.
Oh dear. But wait… what’s this at the end of the review?
What can I say about Haiku? I hated everything about it, except the food, service and dining room, all of which were infuriatingly good.
AND he gives it four stars. Now that rocks.
33 CHurch Street
Tel. +27 (0)21 424 7000
15 New Burlington Place
Tel. +44 (0)20 7494 4777
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