Xai Xai, a South African Melting Pot in Hell's Kitchen
Calvin Trillin was once quoted as saying "the banh mi sandwich is the only good argument for colonialism." I am not so sure about that after a recent meal at Xai Xai, a South African restaurant that seemingly reflects every culture that has graced (or disgraced as the case may be) the golden cape. At Xai Xai we find all sorts of disparate influences—some expected, some not so much—woven around a modern wine bar that features a good selection of South African wines.
And the wine isn't restricted to the glass. The mussels in Chenin ($9), for example, fuse tender briny mussels in an earthy broth spiked with wine. The dish is often associated with the Flemish, whose colonialism made it as far as the Congo, but you won't mind when you tuck in to the heaping bowl.
Boerewors in Blankets ($9) are called sausage rolls in Britain. Here the wild boar sausage is juicy and earthy with only the slightest hint of gaminess wrapped in a crunchy, flaky crust.
Frikkadels in sauce ($9), a traditional Afrikaner of meatballs, is given an Italian twist—served in a marinara sauce with a dusting of Parmesan—doubtlessly borrowed from Italian restaurant Briciola across the street which shares the same owners. The dish did both cultures proud.
Another winner, the Cape Chicken Curry ($9) reflects the influence of Indian cooking on South Africa. During the Colonial, era many Indians migrated to South Africa, bringing their curry with them. To this day the city of Durban is considered the largest Indian city outside of India. The curry here should satisfy even the most homesick (though perhaps of England more than India): a thick sauce laced with coconut and redolent with cumin lays the foundation for tender chunks of chicken.
Also pleasingly rich, no doubt from long simmering with meaty bones, is Oxtail Potjie ($9), an earthy stew with a wonderful depth of flavor. The name of the dish derives from the Potjie, which is a descendant of the Dutch oven brought to Africa during the colonial era.
Xai Xai offers a melting pot of flavors and cultures while also providing a tremendous value—dishes described as "small plates" would pass for entree portions in many restaurants. Add to this a pleasing room and effusive service and you have a restaurant well worth checking out.