Shaka Zulu, Stables Market, London NW1
Any restaurant whose launch party can bring together, under one frenetically decorated roof, the King of the Zulu Nation and Amy Winehouse, has surely got to be worth a look. Shaka Zulu is an 800-seat mega-venue that styles itself a "theatre of food and drink". It's in London's Camden Market and it has a South African theme. Talk about a triple threat.
Summoning my own warrior spirit, I called to book, and was asked whether I had a voucher – surely one of the more troubling phrases in the restaurant lexicon. Second only to, "I really recommend the ostrich". But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Shaka Zulu apparently cost £5.5m, and was meant to open in time for the World Cup, when everyone would be mad for all things South African. But the launch date inevitably slipped to mid-August, and when you see the place, you can understand why.
Not since Mad King Ludwig got the builders in have so many craftsmen, upholsterers and sculptors laboured to such exuberant effect. From street level, an escalator descends past walls encrusted with shells, into a colossal, crepuscular lounge, a crazy riot of carvings, marblings and colourful fabrics. Wooden friezes of Zulu warriors, their shields and six packs glistening, line every wall. If a Las Vegas hotel were to theme itself after Liberace's big-game hunting lodge, it might look something like this, only much smaller. A further escalator leads to the fathomless restaurant below, each area so vast it may well have its own microclimate.
Perched on a circular banquette in the bar, like guests on an African version of GMTV, we fruitlessly tried to catch the eye of a waitress. In a distant corner, a group of African musicians drummed gamely along to the sound system, unheeded. Burly, besuited men with curly earpieces barrelled around, muttering into lapel mics; that touch, at least, felt authentic.
The cocktail menu is subdivided into categories like "Zulu classics" and "Zulu innovations" – who knew Zulu warriors were so fond of cocktails? – and offers themed gems like Prosecutor's Passion and, at £25 for two to share, Mandela's Guests, a concoction of raspberry vodka, rhubarb jam and lychee puree. We tried the Zealaway (£9.50), a peach-flavoured vodka martini which tasted slightly camphorated.
After repeated failed attempts to locate our booking, a manager led us down to our table, through a seething room filled with groups of six, eight and 12, mostly young and dressed for a big night out. The menu swam before our eyes in the gloom. Phrases like "springbok fillet", "pan-fried kingklip" and "seared ostrich carpaccio" loomed out alarmingly. Grilled meats, cooked over charcoal on the traditional braai grill, are the main attraction here, along with Cape-influenced fish and seafood and imported South African game.
Ignoring our waitress's recommendation of the grilled ostrich rump, we chose a couple of Cape Malay-influenced dishes, the legacy of South Africa's Indonesian settlers. Cape Malay pickled sea bass tasted mainly of curry powder, as did a main course of bobotie – curried mince and sultanas baked with a creamy egg topping – which supplied the missing link between Coronation chicken and lasagne.
From the braai grill, fillet of Red Poll beef, from the Sandringham estate, was tender but tasteless, showing no sign of having been cooked over charcoal, and cost a mighty £32 (though the menu listed it at £28). My friend described the accompanying monkey gland sauce as "Branston with balls" (though it's apparently gland-free).
For the echt bushtucker trial experience, we applied ourselves to shaved biltong, jaw-achingly chewy strips of dried meat evoking the contents of a chiropodist's Hoover bag. Truly a dish only an expat could love. As was a dessert called Koeksisters, plaited doughnuts, shellacked in sugar syrup, which should have been served with their own power tool.
Just why the food should be so hit and miss, when so much money and craftsmanship have been lavished on the place, is puzzling; though with 370 covers in the restaurant and several sittings a night, maybe it's inevitable. It's expensive, too. We paid £45 a head for food alone, which more than doubled with the inclusion of cocktails, a £42 bottle of Southern Right Pinotage 2007 from the heavily marked-up list, and service.
Still, the thin white line of restaurant critics bleating about the food probably won't hold back the hordes of fun-lovers who will descend on Shaka Zulu. Like near-neighbour Gilgamesh, another massive temple of bling, it is effectively critic-proof; a glamorous, escapist experience, where girls can dress skimpily, big parties can celebrate birthdays, and couples can come to smooch in the gloom. It may not be the way of the Zulu, but it's the way of the Winehouse.
Shaka Zulu, Stables Market, London NW1 (020-3376 9911)
Around £45 a head before wine and service
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
Side Orders: Out of Africa
South Pier Rd, Manchester (0151-355 1163)
The traditional and affordable food on offer here includes bobotie (£8.95) and grassland game springbok (£14.95).
136 Upper Richmond Road, London SW15 (020-8789-5696)
This south-west London eaterie serves dishes including chargrilled ostrich on a potato rosti with chilli jam (£17.95).
Northend, Halstead (01787 238331)
The reasonably-priced dishes at this family-run bistro include Peri Peri chicken livers (£4.50) and Namaqua red wine lasagne (£9.95).
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