China Crisis was a passable British pop-group in the 1980’s, but since last week it has become a newspaper headline. Something to do with the Chinese government easing back on its ambitious infrastructural developments, leading to a drop in the demand for resources and causing Eastward-looking investors to hastily dump stock with the press of a trembling manicured finger on a keyboard button.
I did not quite expect the quake to ripple Cape Town way, but it would appear that the downward trend experienced by the slit-eyed dog-eaters has reached the restaurant scene here. For how else to explain the fact that South Africa’s Mother City is now home to arguably the worst Chinese eatery in the world, one named Haiku.
This is a surprise. Haiku is run by some naai-do who owns Bukhara, the Indian restaurant perched above its Chinese sister. And Bukhara remains a splendid place to enjoy the best Chicken Vindaloo this side of Madras, as well as freshly baked nan breads so good they are guaranteed to get that old duck from Great British Bake-off wet beneath her bagel.
And in the past, Haiku had delivered the oriental goods in crisp, fresh and flavoursome form, albeit at prices that can keep a Beijing sweatshop child and her seven offspring in noodles and Yorkshire Terrier stir-fry for a year.
This week past, Haiku’s interior was dark, vacant and gloomy. Tired-looking and gusto-less waitrons drained the room’s energy along with a set of sweaty yellow Orientals looking bored as they stirred woks and sharpened sushi knives with slow, listless motions. I felt about as welcome as a gay Mexican at a Donald Trump convention.
I ordered for the table, hoping that a variety of Asian textures and flavours would lift the sullen mood the atmosphere had caused to settle on our brows, laughter and conviviality surely being around the corner when the first hit of umami kicked-in.
Spring rolls of prawn and duck. Steamed dumplings. Tempura prawn. Peking duck and crispy beef. Piles of fluffy rice. Bottles of Wolftrap White wine.
The wine came and was poured and was glugged, and as the pleasant buzz hit the brain, I saw a chef smile – just. The lesbian food critic couple Whitney and Chris walked in, said hello, laughed with us. They sat down at the other table, I heard music somewhere and the place seemed to be lightening up. The evening’s Haiku was being written, with a quill inspired by warmth and energy. I did not, really, even mind the small cockroach that ran across the table, dodged the soya sauce bottle and headed to the floor with the pitter-patter of insect feet.
Then the food came.
The spring rolls had a dough thick enough to use as ear-plugs at a Harley Davidson convention for the hearing impaired. Although, once you had chewed through the coarse, dense casing the interior was stocked with duck and prawn that tasted quite nice through your bleeding, pierced gums.
A bamboo basket of steamed prawn dumplings looked like they had been made during the bombing of Shenzen by a chef with Tourette syndrome. Green flecks of spring onion sprouted from crinkled, condom-like casings. To the bite, the prawn was snot-like and edgy with flavours of dead marine life.
Most ghastly was the tempura. What was supposed to be an awesomely light and airy batter turned out to be greasy and dense as the stuff a meat pie from an all-night garage is crusted with.
Adding to the confusion, the hot tempura was covered with a pasty, grey-white mayonnaise that looked alarmingly like the remnants of a money-shot from a Ron Jeremy porn special. Warm mayonnaise does not good eating make, especially if you are not planning to recycle the dish.
Those who had the Peking duck declared this “good” after covering it with sticky plum sauce, rolling the sliced bird in a pancake and chasing it with iced white wine.
My beef was terrible. Crispy, as the menu said, but tough as a dehydrated geisha girl corpse, just not as nice smelling. Attempts to cover the disaster by smearing the cow with sweet, syrupy gunk were gloriously unsuccessful.
The meal ended with coconut ice-cream, cold and good but not enough to remove the bad taste. Outside, the streets were dark and empty, but less gloomy.
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