The suspicion that there is something distinctly lacking in Joburg’s restaurant scene is confirmed every time I visit Cape Town. I’m quite honestly bored with Egoli’s eateries – which all seem to have meticulously copied one another’s menus.
Where’s the excitement, the innovation and adventure? Perhaps the pace of life in this crazy city means that we seek out predictability and comfort in our food. Or could it be something in the local water that eats away at our restaurateur’s creativity?
Either way we’re undoubtedly spoilt for choice when it comes to how many restaurants we have to choose from, but desperately wasting away from lack of culinary depth.
I recently returned to Haiku in Cape Town’s city centre to test whether it had maintained the standard that I had experienced a year earlier. I took along three virgins to the Haiku experience; although I was worried that my high praise would create expectations that would be difficult to meet.
Haiku describes itself as serving exotic Asian cuisine – tapas-style. That means many of the dishes are served as smaller portions with the intention of being shared by the table. Not a new concept in Asia, but certainly different from the way that Asian food is often served in most South African restaurants.
Getting a table can be a challenge if you don’t call a few days in advance (or happen to be sleeping with a staff member – as was the case with a friend on my first visit). Unusually for South Africa (but fairly common internationally), Haiku has two dinner sittings – which attests to its popularity; one at 18.30 and the other at 21.00. This can however be a little annoying if you have to wait for an earlier table to clear out when you arrive for the later sitting.
The restaurant itself is dark and moody, but also stylishly minimalist; evoking a sense of contemporary and trendy Asian mystique. (Low-lighting can also make reading the menu a tad of a challenge.)
Be warned, the vast menu can be daunting at first – with around 150 items – so don’t be shy to ask for help from the staff. There are a number of distinct kitchens at Haiku, the basis on which the menu is divided: There’s Chinese dim sum; wok and barbeque; Japanese robata grills; and sushi. The chefs apparently hail from their respective nations adding to the authenticity of the experience.
Thankfully my waiter on both occasions was knowledgeable about the menu and you can trust the staff’s recommendations – they do know what they are talking about. Don’t expect to eat along the lines of courses – the food arrives when it is ready.
We decided to each choose three dishes for the table – each from a different kitchen – along with a selection of rice and noodles. The result was a seemingly never-ending hedonistic feast.
Unless you’re very lucky, it’s unlikely you’ve tasted Asian food quite like this before: a remarkable range of multilayered flavours – both striking and subtle – made with the freshest ingredients. While all we were served elicited “oohs” and “ahhs” from the table and led to a mad scramble to taste everything before it was gone, a number of dishes stood out:
The dumplings cannot be missed. We tasted both the steamed variety (Chicken Asparagus) and pan fried (Spicy Chicken with Dhania and Green Chillies) also known as pot stickers. These doughy delights trapping tasty fillings were a highlight.
So was the Orange Duck, which is positively addictive. I found myself spooning up the remaining citrus sauce long after the immaculately cooked bird was eaten.
The wok-fried Garlic Calamari with Mild Chilli and Crumbs was also gobbled down in quick measure. And the superb freshness of the tuna sashimi must be mentioned.
The desert menu, while including some tired favourites was saved by the quality of ingredients: even the ubiquitous chocolate mousse was above average thanks to a good dark chocolate base. This was also evident in the Chocolate Fondant, but neither could beat my personal favourite, the Banana Crepes.
Haiku, open since 2005, is owned by the Bukhara Group, which has been so successful with its Bukhara restaurants; offering superior (although pricey) Indian cuisine. A second branch of Haiku has opened, but sadly it’s not in Joburg – or even on the continent: Should you happen to be in London, you’ll find it just off Regent Street in Mayfair.
In true Cape Town style, the Haiku experience is certainly not cheap – and do expect to especially pay for the fairly extensive wine selection. Our bill came to around R350 a head, so make sure the credit card is at hand. Expensive, yes, but I felt that every cent was well spent and my year-long expectations met.
I didn’t only have fantastic food; I was entertained and enthralled. Haiku is not a restaurant for regular eating – even if you could afford it – but rather a place of occasion. That’s not to say that it’s stiff or formal, in fact far from it, but it’s an experience to be savoured and remembered. If you’re in the mood for a dining adventure, get a table at Cape Town’s Haiku – even if you have to shag the help.