If you search our on-line database of wine friendly restaurants for those with a South African emphasis on their wine list, you get a whopping three results within the U.S.
With the quality of South African wines improving rapidly and South African wine imports to this country up steadily for the last several years, I’m surprised more people haven’t jumped on the opportunity to put a solid focus on the wines either via a restaurant or wine bar.
But with the recent proliferation of wine bars in Manhattan, it was only a matter of time before a South Africa-themed version finally opened. Frankly, what took so long?
Xai Xai now holds the claim of the first South African wine bar to open in New York, and it’s a welcome addition. Nothing against the French or Italians, but the market seems pretty well-saturated with wine bars along those lines.
“We’re hoping to ride that wave a bit,” said Brett Curtin, owner of Xai Xai (pronounced shy-shy), in regard to the burgeoning appeal of South African wines here in the U.S. “It’s exciting of course, but a little scary at the same time.”
Born in Johannesburg and raised in Cape Town, Curtin has been in the States for 10 years, but hasn’t lost his warm, hospitable South African persona. Despite a heating system that failed to work well on the coldest night of the year last night, Xai Xai nonetheless steadily filled up with patrons and the atmosphere was lively as Curtin worked the bar area, leading customers through the various wine selections. It’s Curtin’s first foray into the restaurant business, and he’s joined by his fiancée, Tanya Hira.
The 80-something selection wine list has a solid range of some of the Cape’s best wines, including Syrahs from Rudi Schultz and Boekenhoutskloof, Chenin Blancs from Teddy Hall and Ken Forrester, and numerous other tasty choices from quality producers like Fairview, Neil Ellis, De Trafford, Rustenberg, The Foundry, Thelema and more. More than half the wines are available by the glass, ranging from $9 to $22 for a generous pour; bottles range from $28 to $102.
Food at Xai Xai (named for a small beach town in Mozambique) is also in a South African vein, featuring small plates of traditional items such as chickpea pepperdew (small peppers and chickpeas mashed together), biltong (a dry cured meat) and snoek, a perch- or pikelike fish that Curtin gets when available. All that's missing is a good Kudu steak or Springbok shank (ahem, there's an opportunity for anyone who wants to start importing South African specialty game meats). With prices ranging from $7 to $16 a plate, one can eat and drink well here without putting too big a dent in the wallet.
If you’re having trouble finding some of the wines I’ve been recommending in my annual reports (the next report is slated for the April 30, 2008, issue), Xai Xai pulls quite a few of them together in one place. It’s raising the bar for the emerging “brand South Africa” here in the States, and worth checking out if you’re in the neighborhood. One note though, they don’t take reservations, and the place does tend to fill up quickly, even when the heat isn't working.
365 W. 51st St., New York