Halfway through the special winter menu at Haiku, that sizzling hot central Cape Town venue where they serve Chinese and Japanese ‘tapas’ from five mini kitchens, each with specialist chefs, a Chinese master of his craft called Xie Shucong steps out.
He has in his hands a large clump of pastry. It has a sheen that you could use to check your hair or adjust your tie, and after pouring a little oil onto a table surface that he has just cleaned, he sets about kneading and stretching the dough, occasionally flicking alkaline water or oil onto it, alternating with flour. It looks like a hell of a workout. Now he’s tossing the elongated dough in the air like a skipping rope, and after barely minutes it’s back on the table where, as if by a magician’s wand, it transforms into the finest possible strands of delicate “hand noodles” as thin as the most delicate vermicelli.
I’ve never seen anything quite like it - the display puts the craft back into mere cooking. I have new respect for those packets of shop-bought noodles, having seen the effort, grace and craftsmanship that goes into making them. It makes Italian pasta-making look like child’s play.
I know that owner Sabi Sabharwal has set this up for me, knowing that I’m in the house and will appreciate the wonder of Chef Xie Shucong’s demonstration, but if you are there and it’s not too busy (it was very early, so the place had not yet filled up for the evening’s service), there’s no harm in asking, although the chef does make the noodles once a day, generally.
Haiku is a deliciously moody venue, all quite dark with the lights that there are drawing attention to the table and the plate. It is among the best restaurants at the Cape, partly because it is so good at everything that reaches your table, and partly for its originality of concept. You could plonk it down in London’s Soho and it would be perfectly at home.
The restaurant has introduced some ‘winter warmers’ specials, with three courses for R179 or five for R249. It is splendid value because some of the portions, despite the ‘tapas’ tag, are pretty generous, and for five courses you’re going to be very well fed indeed. As for three courses, how full you are at the end of it depends very much on your choices.
There are five kitchens at Haiku, and the winter special (available for dinner Mondays to Wednesdays) offers you one choice from each. There are five sushi choices, five dim sum (dumplings), five robata (flame grill), six wok choices and five desserts. So you can have one sushi, one dim sum and a dessert, or one dim sum, one robata and one wok dish, or one sushi, one robata and a dessert, and so on. Or just take five, one of each.
I was given more tastes than ordered, because the management wanted me to be able to tell you as much as possible about as many dishes as possible (you do not say no to Sabi, I learnt that a long time ago – he would just send out even more), but undoubtedly three courses would have been more than enough. Obviously I only tasted some of them, and ate all of only a couple.
I ignored the sushi and started instead with dim sum – the spicy prawn HarGau, which took me back to Hong Kong circa 1996. If you have never tried dim sum, this is where to try it. It does not get better than this, sublime pastry, wonderful filling of spicy prawn. There were three, and all of them a substantial mouthful, served in a bamboo basket.
They also sent out superbly crunchy prawn and asparagus spring roll with hot garlic sauce, garnished with strips of deep-fried won ton pastry.
My robata choice of beef fillet with shiitake mushrooms was utterly tender beef skewered with shiitake, with mustard and sesame, while the robata salmon was moist and underdone (as I like it) and served with apple ginger sauce. Both also came with wasabi mayo.
After Chef Xie Shucong’s exquisite demonstration, I had regained some appetite for the wok dish which was not at all your conventional stirfry. Rather, this was an individual chicken and mushroom hotpot served at the table over a gas flame. Deliciously flavoured and substantial – a good choice for the hungry.
If you were up for dessert (I wasn’t) your choice would be chocolate spring roll, banana crêpes, chocolate fondant, a trio of Asian ice creams or mango ice cream. I’ve had some of these in the past, and suffice to say that Haiku does a mean dessert.
Just around the corner, by the way, is Sabharwal’s famous Bukhara Indian restaurant where there is also a winter special. I have not tried it, but they’re offering two courses for R169 or a “three-course feast” for R199. Served Monday to Friday for lunch or Monday to Wednesday for dinner. There are surcharges for certain dishes.
Haiku, 58 Burg Street, Cape Town 021 424 7000
Published in The Sunday Independent June 2012