Kaia Wine Bar
1614 3rd Avenue, New York NY 10128 (b/n 90th and 91st; map); kaiawinebar.com
Service: Very outgoing, attentive, and friendly
Setting: Soft wood, dim, comfortable if loud
Must-Haves: Malva Cake, Kaapse Sout Pannekoek
Cost:$6 to $16
My wife lived in Yorkville for a couple of years back before we were married, and one of our biggest complaints about the neighborhood was its lack of really great, casual-yet-romantic food and beverage options. Sure, there's Cavatappo, a fine little wine bar on 90th and 2nd, and a couple of cute South American restaurants like Pio Pio and Gauchas with candlelight and decent by-the-glass wines, but we never felt like regulars at any of them, if only because Cavatappo was always crowded (and tiny), and we're not always in the mood for hunks of South American grilled meat, however tasty it was.
If we'd stuck around we might have finally found it with Kaia, a new wine bar with an interesting South African bent. The co-owner, Suzaan Haupfleisch, is a native of South Africa with a decade-long history in New York's food scene, where she started as a waitress and ended up as the events director at La Grenouille, and finally at Sfoglia on the Upper East Side, before partnering up with her partner Josh, formerly the Service Director of Babbo. Their background in hospitality shows, and service at Kaia is top-notch—the kind of place with the casual friendliness to make you feel like a regular customer from your very first visit.
It takes a bit of effort to navigate your way through the pidgin of mixed Zulu and English on the menu, a multicultural mix that is also the trademark of the cuisine.
The place is first and foremost a wine bar, and they thankfully don't make the mistake of leaning too heavily on South African wines, though they still make up a good 25% of the menu. The rest is a mix of mostly New World wines and a few from Australia and New Zealand—there are no old world bottles in the list.
Every wine is available by the glass and range from between $9 for a dry-fruit scented Argentinian Santa Julia Viognier 2009 to $13 for the awesome off-dry Brightwater 2009 Riesling from New Zealand. Prices seem a little hefty for the relatively low-end wines at first, but pours are big—pushing 6 ounces I'd venture to guess. If you don't plan on drinking quite a bit, you're better off sharing a few glasses between friends.
Pickled Peppedew Peppers ($6) from the Limpopo valley are among some of my favorite vegetables, with a sweet, bread & butter pickle-y tartness and a hint of heat. Here they come stuffed with mild farmer's cheese and drizzled with curry oil, though four small peppers seems a bit meager for the price, especially considering the cold flatbread they come served with.
The cold bread problem also plagued the Ostrich and Chicken sliders ($6), which otherwise showed good flavor—particularly the chicken version spiced with dukka and served with a hot mayonnaise. Had they been better seasoned, a little less cooked, and served on hot steamed buns, they would have been true winner.
Much better was the Boesmans Slaai ($12), a mix of dried meats served on a charming enameled tin plate. Gamey bilton (a form of jerky made from venison or antelope) formed the bulk of the plate, with a few nuggets of spicy dried meat and several droewors, a seasoned dried sausage developed in the 18th century when French Huguenots made their way to South Africa. The latter went particularly well with the nutty, spicy South African Solms Astor Langarm 2007 ($13/52).
The food takes a big upturn with the Kombuis (kitchen) section. Bobotie en Geel Rys ($16) is a tender pie of heavily spiced beef mixed with black raisins and turmeric all coated in a moussaka-like topping of egg custard flavored with bay leaves. It's a truly multi-cultural dish with both Dutch and Malay influences originating from Jakarta when the city was still a colony of the Dutch East India Company.
After trying in vain to order the Kaapse Sout Pannekoek ($14), the waiter simply said, "Oh, you mean the pancake." It's a hot, tender crepe stuffed with tender braised pork. Juicy, well spiced, and well seasoned, it was one of the best dishes on the menu, particularly when eaten with the spoonful of hot and sweet Mrs. Ball's Chutney, a South African preserve made from Apricots and Peaches.
Pap is the South African equivalent of American grits, though it tends to be drier and fluffier. It comes served with the Kwarteljie ($16) a lemon and herb-rubbed roasted quail. The dish would be a winner—the quail is tender and flavorful, particularly with the hot Malay sambal it comes drizzled with—but the pap unfortunately was completely unseasoned. We ate the quail and left the grits.
Desserts are traditional Dutch-based South African offerings like Melktert ($8), a milk-based pie, and Malva Pudding ($8). The latter, a sweet and sticky cake made with apricots and served with an apricot cream, was killer. Served hot, it's ridiculously moist with a sticky sweetness that stops just short of being cloying.
Friendly, casual, reasonably priced spots like this that still manage to be classy and romantic are what great neighborhood dining is all about. It's nothing to travel out of your way to get to, which for the natives of Yorkville, is nothing but a good thing. Kinda makes me wish my wife still lived around the corner.
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