Modeled on a shebeen, an informal dining hall, and named for Nelson Mandela, Madiba claims to be the first South African restaurant of its kind in the United States. It opened in Fort Greene in 1999. A few servers wore shirts with "Obama" written on the front and "Madiba" on the back, although it could be hard to make out much in the dark interior. While some of our food could have used a heavier hand with the spice rack, overall Madiba appeals, because it takes seriously the concept of being of its community.
Stuffed with curried potatoes and peas, the Durban samoosas ($10) emphasized the connections between India and Africa. The South African city of Durban, like the country itself, has a large population of Indians who arrived from the subcontinent as laborers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Madiba's samoosas look like miniature samosas, and are full of a curried, though muted potato and pea mixture. The small side of mango atchar was lip-smackingly sour.
Mom's salmon cake ($12), our second starter, came pan fried, then stacked atop papaya, greens, and onions, alongside a tiny spoonful of caviar and several squirts of pepperdew mayo. The fish eggs made the fish cake fishier, but the mayo acted as a nice cool foil to the cake's crunch. According to the menu, the seafood is sourced straight from the South Atlantic via a South African company, which says much for Madiba's authenticity (committed) and its footprint (large).
But then there's the rooftop garden, the source of at least some of the produce on the bushman's vegetable platter ($13). That night, the veggies included yellow squash, asparagus, string beans, baby bok choy, corn on the cob, spinach, and fat triangles of garlic. This dish works best as a counterpart to meatastic South African braai, or barbecue.
So, as our final entrée, we tried the pap & boerewors ($18). We need the iron. Let's get the obvious out of the way first: at $18, this didn't come cheap. But the horseshoe-shaped boerewors brought us not luck but taste: the beef tenderloin sausage had a lovely mineral tang and nice snap. We were also partial to the pap, cornmeal boiled to a soft mass, like what happens when you forget to stir cous cous, and smothered in tomato-and-onion gravy.
It's not often that you get to watch a restaurant enact its slogan. Usually such words serve as mere marketing, meant to be read but not experienced. Madiba calls itself "a place of love," and love is what we saw on a recent Friday night. A young boy got some ice cream and every single server came over to see how it was. Meanwhile, two servers elbowed each other as particularly fine people walked by. "I'm just admiring God's grace," a waitress said.
A portion of the proceeds from the restaurant goes back to South Africa, in the form of aid to such organizations as Ethembeni School for the Blind and Ubuntu Education Fund. Closer to home, the folks behind Madiba support GMHC and work with local kids, among charitable initiatives centered around education, urban renewal, and equal rights. With its positive, yes-we-can attitude, Madiba is best for: a date with an idealist.