Thursday, January 22, 2009

Xai Xai Winebar

Well this is going to be a departure from what I usually write about... I know I'm all about the recipes and saving money and eating healthy, but sometimes... well, just like everyone else, sometimes I like to go out!

I know, clutch your pearls and gasp.

Once a week a group of my friends get together around 8:00pm, and my good friend, J, and I have tried to make it a "tradition" to do dinner beforehand. Usually we go to "Tuna Wednesday" at EAST where I can get a plate of awesome tuna sashimi for $6...

However yesterday, J informed me that he had sushi the night before and wanted something else.

Ok, I can depart from our normal sushi night. Besides, this gave me an excuse to try something new! So I began racking my brain... "where in the neighborhood [Hell's Kitchen] have you not eaten but would like to??" The answer came easily enough... I walk down 51st Street multiple times per week, and every time I pass Xai Xai I think -- Geez! I need to try that place!

Xai Xai is relatively new to the neighborhood. Well, I only became aware of it about a year ago when my dear friend from New Zealand pointed it out to me. It's a South African winebar, boasting native cuisine and fine wines. I looked up the website and spent all of maybe 30 seconds looking at the menu before I was sold. Ostrich Tartar? Venison Carpaccio?? Deep Fried Camembert??? SIGN ME UP!!!!

J and I are both culinarily adventurous, thus making the new restaurant and it's unfamiliar cuisine a pretty easy sell...

J: "What's biltong?"
Me: "Um, I don't know..."
J: "Monkey Gland sauce...?"
Me: "I know, right?!?!?!"
J: "I'm in!"

Because Xai Xai is a winebar, our first order of business was choosing the wine for the meal. Now normally I stick to my reds. I find that I am rarely disappointed in a mid-level shiraz or pinot noir. But J made the valid point that we had a long night of socializing in front of us, and red can make you sleepy! In that interest, we opted instead for a white. Our waiter (who by the way was gorgeous with a thick South African accent) recommended the Buitenverwachten ‘07 (Constantia - $16 g/$44 b) so we took him on his word. It was a Riesling, and a bit too sweet for my taste, but still very very good!

Next up was my favorite part of the night -- picking our dishes!

Xai Xai doesn't operate a full kitchen. They offer a series of "small plates". We're both on non-diets, so decided that splitting a few of those would be a great option. Like a meal made of appetizers! Who doesn't love appetizers??!!

After a little debate (I couldn't convince him that raw ostrich would be amazing... maybe next time!) we settled on 3 dishes: The Cheese Plate, Biltong Bruschetta, and Venison Carpaccio.

The Cheese Plate came with 4 artisinal cheeses: camembert, bleu, sharp cheddar, and a fourth soft cheese, similar to a brie in texture with a more biting rind. The cheeses were served with mixed nuts and a chutney -- which we think was apricot but can't be sure! The best combination was the bleu with chutney! The first thing you got was the sweet fruit, then tang of the bleu, finished off with a little bit of an after-spice from the chutney... AMAZING!

The Biltong Bruschetta (which was J's fave!) came out pretty much as you expect it to, except there's this stuff all over the top of it. That stuff, come to find out, is Biltong. What's Biltong, you ask? Ya, I asked the same thing. According to wikipedia, it's cured meat. Like jerky! But WAY better. And I believe that our biltong was an ostrich biltong, so even though I missed out on the Ostrich Tartar, I still got to have a little of my favorite meat! The biltong on top of the stewed tomatoes was out of this world.

Venison Carpaccio (my fave!) will be on my mind for a very very loooooong time. Yes, it's one of the more costly dishes, coming in at $20. Please believe me though -- it's worth it! Raw venison is bright red, and the carpaccio is so thinly sliced and delicate... it kind of reminded me of those lace doilies my grandma used to keep her lamps on. Only bright red instead of white. And made of deer. Ok, so not really like that at all. But oh my god so delicious! It's drizzled in olive oil with lots of cracked green pepper, served with roasted peppers and a whole roasted garlic clove. It was absolutely the first big stand out dish of my year!

This place would be amazing for a date. The setting is dim but very warm, decorated with lots of wood accents that give it a very South African flare. If you did what J and I did - 3 small plates and a bottle of wine - you'll spend about $120 to $150 including tip. I think lots of people would think that's a lot (because, well, it is!) but it's so so so worth it! And if you've got the cash and want to impress someone -- DO IT!

I mean, come one... Candle light? Wine? Gourmet food? What more could you ask for??!?

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