Africa – The Last Culinary Frontier
I love African food and am of the opinion that it is woefully overlooked and largely underrepresented in London, and in the mainstream as a whole. So when Shaka Zulu opened its doors last year I was relieved that finally someone had come along and was doing high end African cuisine in the heart of London and I remember thinking… “This could really take off”.
Of course I was right. Pretty soon the word of Shaka Zulu was spreading faster than a brushfire across the Serengeti. Everyone was talking about the new kid on the block, the ‘block’ in question being Camden Stables Market which also houses the equally hip and trendy Gilgamesh.
I’d been meaning to check it out for quite some time but just never got round to it until this weekend just gone. My friend Wesley had decided on Shaka Zulu as the venue for his birthday celebrations, and I’d already had a peek at their menu by virtue of the internet. In fact I’d already picked out what I wanted – at least for main course, anyway. When I eat out I always like to try something I’ve never had before, and “Crumbed Zebra Loin” certainly fell into that category.
So I’d been starving myself all day long in anticipation of trying a nice bit of zebra. When I’d woken up that morning with my traditional Saturday morning hangover, I’d resisted the temptation to kill it with a bacon sandwich. “Just think of the zebra”, I told myself. By about 2pm I was so hungry I could have even eaten a Pot Noodle. Even on the tube on the way down there, a woman sitting opposite me had a zebra-print handbag and I was almost salivating all over the carriage floor. However I made it to Camden Town and met up with Wes and his friend Pauline at the barriers, and we made our way past all the food stalls to the Stables Market. By this time I could have eaten a whole zebra.
A dimly lit doorway revealed an escalator which descended into the bar area of the restaurant. Riding an escalator down kind of felt like we were waiting to go on a ride at Alton Towers or something. However when we stepped off, we stepped off into another world…
I know these photos won’t really do the place justice, but it’s the best I could do with my camera. But to say I was impressed with the place would be an understatement. It was HUGE!! Two floors, with a reception and bar area upstairs overlooking the main bar and restaurant below, thus:
Now I’ve been to quite a few “themed” restaurants. It’s difficult to keep the theme going throughout without making the place look and feel tacky, but Shaka Zulu does this so well that at times I had to remind myself I wasn’t actually in Africa and this made me question whether Shaka Zulu is even a “themed” restaurant at all. And the answer is a profound no. This place is so much more, although little details such as a massive escalator slap bang in the middle of the place nudged me out of my African fantasy and back into the renovated basement underneath Camden Market. To sum it up briefly, The place is spectacular and possibly has the best decor of any restaurant I’ve ever been to. Granted, it is over the top, but it’s also class without the feel that it’s tried too hard to appear classy. Although when I read that the owner reportedly spent a cool 5 and a half million on the interior alone it kind of shows. The huge Zulu warrior statues dotted about must have speared a hole through his wallet.
We had a beer in the bar area while we waited for two more of Wesley’s mates to turn up (I had a Windhoek which is a damn fine lager) and then Ivan and June arrived and we were ready to eat. I was really looking forward to my zebra now. In fact I’d become like Alex the lion from the Madagascar films where he sees steaks everywhere he looks. Good job we sat down when we did otherwise I might have munched Wesley’s arm off.
We were presented with a much smaller á la carte menu offering two courses for £19.00, and I have to say the choice was very poor (it was literally meat, fish or vegetarian). So we asked to see the full menu instead. However when they brought it over we were informed that we all had to order from the same menu be it the á la carte or the full menu. Basically if one of us wanted to order from the full menu then we would all have to. This puzzled us – and one of our party even called the manager over to explain. She gave us some excuse about how they were very busy and apparently “the system would not allow it, and the chefs would not allow it”. So it seems that perhaps the chefs are running the restaurant. Either that or their till system has gone rogue. I felt perhaps they could have solved this by simply splitting us into two groups and ringing them through as two separate orders or something. It surely could not have been beyond them to come up with a solution.
However she stuck to her guns, which annoyed me a bit. But we had a brief conference and eventually ended up ordering from the full menu – albeit at a higher price. For starters, I opted for the ‘Cape Malay pickled red mullet, 12 spices, garlic, shallots & chilli, served chilled with lemon oil and coriander shoots”. A bit of a mouthful. And indeed when it arrived, it was:
The portion size was generous (again, the picture doesn’t tell the full story here. That plate was huge). Taste-wise, though, it was okay. Nothing overly special, but not unpleasant either. You could definitely taste that it was pickled – think rollmop herring with a slightly firmer texture, like a rollmop gone planking. For something that supposedly contained chilli and 12 spices this was not hot in the slightest. A lot of flavours competing, possibly a couple too many if you ask me. It was as if they were trying to mask the taste of the (already pickled) fish, which I picked a couple of bones out of.
The leaves on top were, in my view, unnecessary. I’m not in any way a presentation nazi – in my view taste comes first and if it happens to look nice on the plate then that’s a bonus – but I felt that they just covered it up and the whole sauce thing going on on the left just screamed “cliche”. Overall though, it was a so-so starter.
Wesley, on the other hand, had gone for the aubergine salad – which was aubergine caviar with grilled smoked aubergine, pea shoots and lemon oil. Wesley is allergic to fish, and since fish dishes comprised more than half of the starters, he was probably a little disappointed about his lack of choices, but he changed his tune when this arrived:
Again, covered in leaves. Maybe they should just ‘leave’ it out. Hehe.
However, Wesley was pleased with his starter which he described as being really nice. I tried a little and will second that. Quite nice indeed. The consistency of hummus without the graininess, and the occasional burst of pomegranate which worked really well. Sometimes a vegetarian dish can appear rushed, with just enough thought gone into it to keep the veggie diners happy. This was one example of a vegetarian dish done quite well and in hindsight I would have gladly swapped this for my fish starter (although not with Wesley!!)
With the starter down, we were looking forward to our main course. Well, apart from me. I’d been informed that the zebra was off the menu.
Yes, that’s right. The thing that I’d been looking forward to all week had been taken off. Apparently some people had complained about zebra being hunted illegally in South Africa and although the waiter assured me that the restaurant had never bought any illegal game, they still had to bow to peer pressure and remove the offending item from their menus.
Now I was pissed off. Fucking do-gooders sticking their noses in and telling me what I can and can’t do. I mean seriously, what is their beef?? (No pun intended. Most of them were probably vegetarians anyway). As far as I know, zebras as a whole aren’t endangered, in fact I’ve heard that the plains zebra is quite abundant. It’s only a couple of sub-species that are protected, so as long as they weren’t hunting those ones, why was it a problem? If you don’t agree with zebra hunting, don’t eat zebra. Simples. I know this phrase is contradictory and inappropriate in context, but you gotta live and let live. And to quote Tony Bourdain on this, when I get hungry, things die.
So after pointing out to the waiter that London Zoo is only five minutes down the road and hinting that they could score some zebra from there, but alas to no avail, I opted for the spit roast of the day (oo-er), which turned out to be shoulder of lamb served with peri peri fries and chakalaka (South African coleslaw).
More freakin’ leaves!!
This was really nice. I hate to use all the old meat clichés but very tender and succulent, fall apart in your mouth, etc. This I had no complaints with as a main meal other than the fact that lamb shoulder is something I’ve had before. Though to be fair this was done really well with just the right amount of fat on, which had become crisp around the edges and provided an amazing fresh from the braai flavour. The fries were really nice too as fries go. Wesley had ordered the same as me for our main, and both of us enjoyed it thoroughly.
As we were tucking in, I was disturbed by some noise from the other side of the room. I thought I’d already been informed that there were no zebras around that night, yet my eyes were deceiving me:
I swear that one on the left took some of my fries. 🙂 Nevertheless it was an interesting distraction from our meals!! Unfortunately I cut half of Ivan’s face off, sorry Ivan!!
Elsewhere on our table, Pauline had gone for the Boerewors sausage which I tried and can assure you that although it looked like something one of those zebras might have left behind it tasted fantastic. The smokey aftertaste was intense, almost like edible incense. (Hey, I did a rhyme 🙂 )
The only one who was a little disappointed was Ivan; he’d ordered the battered kingklip which is like a long thin whitefish with a taste comparable to cod or haddock. Whilst he seemed happy with the taste, he felt that the portion size was a bit on the small side. I did not manage to get a picture of this one as he was right over the other side of the table but from where I was sitting it did look like you’d need two to fill you up.
We skipped dessert and settled the bill – Four starters and five mains with drinks and service came to about £160 which is expensive on my budget. Granted the food was not bad, but I still felt it was somewhat overpriced. Overall the whole experience had its highs and lows, the decor in itself is worth going there to see, but the drinks are expensive, the spit roast of the day turned out to be a winner however my red mullet starter came under the heading of “could do better”. I wouldn’t rule out coming back here in the future, for example it’s an ideal place for a work gathering or something along those lines or to try something a little different. But I for one would like to see them stand up to these killjoy protesters and put more African game meats on the menu.
*Fast efficient table service makes up for their weird menu policy, which is obviously no fault of the waiting staff.
**Based on prices for the full menu, although the á la carte menu is considerably cheaper, and they often run Groupon promotions too.