Kaia Wine Bar, Upper East Side

So, how many of you had ever had South African food?  Just curious… because I had never had it before and honestly I am completely unfamiliar with it. I’ve heard of maybe one or two South African places in the city, so when Kaia opened up a few blocks from my house I was so overwhelmed with curiosity that I had to go!

It was a couple months ago that I noticed Kaia while walking past. It must have opened up recently because I feel like I would have noticed it sooner. There’s actually no sign or anything on the outside, so what caught my eye was the cute interior; it was dimly lit with  hanging candles and rustic wooden accents. I immediately pointed it out to Matt and dragged him to look at the menu. After taking a look at the unfamiliar “not-quite-English” menu items I noticed that it was a South African wine bar! So Matt lost interest immediately but I stored it away in the back of my mind.

When my friend and I decided to meet for dinner and drinks I suggested Kaia. I had read several reviews claiming that Kaia was the best place for South African wine in the city, a few of which they actually have on tap. Although I don’t claim to be a South African wine connoisseur, I do know that they produce some of the best wines in the world. So again my interest was peaked and we decided to go.

When we got there I noticed that the interior was rather small but cozy. They had a bar you could sit at and drink wine, and also a counter by the window that you could snag if it was busy. Taking a closer look at the menu I was intrigued by the “South-African-lingo”. I have no idea what the language is called or whether it’s spoken only in the country, or by locals, or by everybody, but the only way I can describe it is a mix of English and what I would imagine an African language to be (I actually think it’s Zulu). Let me give you an example: Mac en Kaas is mac and cheese, Wildevark is wild boar, and platbrood is a flatbread. Reading through the menu you can vaguely tell what things are but it sounds like a fun rendition.

The menu definitely had a lot of “wild” meats. Wild boar, ostrich, quail, bison, elk, and duck were a few of the things I saw. You can definitely pick up on the Indian and African influences in the cuisine through the references to chutney, curry, and lentils. The menu was pretty small and didn’t have that many vegetarian options, but it seemed to have a lot of variety in the dishes.  They also had a cheese and wine flight with 3 oz tastings of wine matched with a cheese! All in all I’d describe their menu as “rustic small plates.”

We both ordered a glass of South African wine (average glass of wine was $15). I ordered a Cabernet and it was good, although unusually peppery. It was certainly enjoyable though. The bread that came out was fantastic; soft and pillowy and served with olive oil and what I believe to be a mixture of poppy seeds, sesame seeds, and anise. It added a nice crunch and texture to the soft bread.

Not gonna lie, service was super slow. It was busy but I was watching the waitress and she didn’t seem overwhelmed, just slow. I ordered the tiger prawns for dinner while my friend had roasted chicken, and it took almost 30 minutes to come out. Although when you’re with good company I don’t mind the wait!

No doubt about it the food was good. I was served three jumbo shrimp in a smoky red sauce and served with a side of rice. My friend was served three chicken legs overtop what looked like quinoa mixed with dried currants.

The criticism that I have with the food is that my prawns were ridiculously difficult to peel. I may not be an expert but usually the restaurant will slit the back of the shell or something to make it easier. I seriously worked on them for a full 15 minutes which really took away from the experience. Since the shrimp were saucy I didn’t want to get my fingers messy. Anyway so, when I got them peeled and took a big bite with the sauce and rice I was in heaven. My friend loved her roast chicken as well.

In short, this was a pleasant night out with good food, but I may not come back for dinner as the prices were steep for what we got. Instead I may come back to sit at the bar and try the different wines with some cheese and oysters ($1.50 during happy hour.) Kaia gets 3.5/5 stars!

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