If cavemen could design restaurants, they’d probably come up with something like Shebeen.
Dinner for three, excluding drinks,
The exterior of this new South African eatery, named after the word for drinking den, is painted brown (the colour of meat and mammoths), and, once you’ve found the very low-key and secluded entrance and negotiated the L-shaped staircase, it opens up into a cave-like first floor premises (cosseting, safe from marauding pterodactyls) with earthy-coloured walls and animal pelts.
Those who associate genders with restaurants (I don’t, but I’ll make an exception) might say that this new place, which has an original branch on Leith’s Dock Place, is a big hairy bloke of an eatery.
The menu features plenty of hearty, red meaty dishes. For example, there are braai (aka barbecue) options, surf and turf, biltong, samosas, boerewors sausage, as well as melktert and other options that reflect South Africa’s varied cultures. Surprisingly though, no bobotie, which was sad for my apricot and mince-loving dining partners, all of whom are former residents of Cape Town. Or, in fact, walkie talkies – cooked chicken feet and heads (I didn’t really expect to see those, I just wanted an excuse to give it a mention as it is the best and most evocative name for a food item EVER).
To start, two of us shared the fanagalo (£6.50 per person), which was named after and subtitled on the menu as “a blend of all the different tribal languages in South Africa, used in the gold mines”.
Basically, it was a metal bargain bucket of meat. This looked a bit off-puttingly Sawney Bean-esque, with a half rack of ribs slicked with a jammy barbecue sauce, a couple of rather bland but burly breadcrumbed meatballs, chewy-in-parts beef and red pepper sosaties (kebabs), good burly boerewors, and a pair of oily and battered limb-sized pork lollipops.
A little green salad sat beside the bucket, like a puny figleaf of a distraction for this flesh medley.
My main of potjie (£11.95), served in a mini-cast iron pot and accompanied by a crusty sun-dried tomato roll, was a pretty ordinary stew. There was plenty of soft beef, carrots, cauliflower and potato, but nothing much happening when it came to the stocky gravy (though there had been some mention of Cape Malay spice on the menu).
We did, however, enjoy the pap en vleis (£11.95). The set of four skinny-boned lamb chops were crusty outside and rosy inside. They came with a mound of snow-coloured and thick pap (aka a maise-meal polenta), which was pepped up by a topping of sweet tomato and onion relish.
Apparently, the rabbit-free dish bunny chow (£9.95) is named after Indian curry traders, Baniyans, who invented it back in the Depression era of the Forties after settling in Durban. It consisted of a loaf of white bread with an inverted pyramid hollowed out of one end.
The hole in our chimney-pot shaped loaf was packed with a yellow, beefy, very mild, star anise and turmericy “fragrant medium Durban curry”. I liked its sweetness, though some might prefer something with a bit more punch.
Main course-wise, I think if we were to return to Shebeen, we’d go for the steaks, which looked perfectly meaty, big and bouncy.
For pudding, they were out of koeksisters (£4) - SA’s answer to the yum-yum. Instead, we tried a slice of melktert (£4.50), which was suitably fresh-tasting. The bread and butter pudding (£4.50) was decent too, with a cinnamony vibe and a butteryness from the brioche ingredient. It came with ice-cream AND custard. Oooh, you are spoiling us.
Thanks to a magazine format change, I now get to give restaurants an out-of-10 food rating, which makes me feel omnipotent. I’m going to go with a relatively low six for Shebeen.
With all that meat, it’s the sort of place that’s most appealing to protein-guzzling cavemen or those who are craving a Proustian taste of home. Unfortunately, I don’t fall into either of those categories, though I certainly couldn’t say no to anything off their braai.