Sunday, March 30, 2014

Indian Road Cafe: Meatloaf, Malva, and Mandela!

By Benjamin Ramos Rosado,

Like many activists, I was deeply saddened when Nelson Mandela passed.  Out of respect for this incredible man, I attended several commemorations of his life and read the various articles published about his human rights work.  But, it wasn’t until I visited one of my favorite eateries-Indian Road Café-that I truly gained an appreciation for the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela.

Indian Road Café is a moderately sized out-of-the-way café/restaurant in Inwood with amazing desserts, seasonal menus, and occasional guest chefs. The cafe features a bakery section, fully stocked bar and ample seating for all day meal service. Wooden tables, exposed brick, and dim lighting, make it the perfect place to kick back and enjoy an afternoon of reading, writing, or relaxation.  I hate to sound like a tired cliché, but I love to go there to write; in fact, I conceived the idea of this blog there.

After an especially strenuous day, I decided to have dinner at the café and unwind with a great meal.  As I entered, I immediately heard mid-tempo African rhythms and noticed the beautiful photography on the walls.  The photos were of South African landscapes, rural communities, and people. 

The most striking photo was of a young Black man speaking to a crowd of students; it took me a moment to realize that it was Nelson Mandela.  His smiling face was captured in mid chant with his fist raised in the air.  Its beauty was striking, yet haunting; who could’ve predicted that the charismatic young man in the photo would one day become one of the most influential human rights advocates in the world.

After admiring the exhibit, I sat down and was immediately greeted by my server.  The café’s wait staff is always sweet and attentive; I’m always impressed with their knowledge of the menu and the food preparation.   I asked about the South African theme and he explained that the café was featuring Chef Chris van der Walt, a guest chef who had prepared a special South African Tasting menu; a type of meal consisting of sample portions of many different dishes served in several courses for a set price.

The café decided to pair the guest chef’s tasting menu with a local artist’s photo exhibit of South African natural beauty and historic moments.  The idea was brilliant!  They were honoring Mandela’s life through music, art, and food. 

Intrigued, I decided to review the tasting menu, which featured an appetizer, Vetkoek (Deep fried dough) with Cheddar cheese, Apricot jam and Traditional South African Beef jerky and Dried Sausage; a first course of Chilled Lightly Curried Pickled Haddock, Traditional Lamb Sausage or Chilli Bites (chickpea fritters); a second course of Bobotie (meatloaf with a custard and sliced almond crust) with White rice, Vegetable Biryani (rice pilaf), or Bunny Chow (traditional lamb stew with tomatoes); and for dessert warm Malva Pudding with vanilla ice cream. 

There was no way I was going to pass on this incredible opportunity, so I chose the tasting menu and ordered the Traditional Lamb Sausage and Bobotie with White rice.  As I waited for my appetizer, I started to read an article inside the exhibit introductory folder.  Apparently, Mandela enjoyed sampling the cuisines of the countries he visited; he enjoyed dining with dignitaries and world leaders while discussing international issues; and loved his native fare so much he would have his personal chef ship South African food to him.

I couldn’t believe it: Nelson Mandela was a foodie!  I’m sure he never used that word to describe himself, but for all intents and purposes, he was one. As my server handed me my appetizer, I joyfully shared this discovery with my server, he smiled and said, “Cool!”

The flakey and soft Vetkoek was stuffed with the cheddar cheese and apricot jam.  The cheese provided a wonderful sharp saltiness to the sweetness of the jam and fried dough.  The South African beef jerky was savory and chewy; the dried sausage had a grainy consistency and a delightful earthy flavor.  The appetizer’s flavors and textures worked well together.

Within minutes of finishing my appetizer, my first course arrived, which would’ve pleased Mandela who valued punctuality, especially in food service.  The Traditional Lamb Sausage was paired with a tomato onion gravy and pap, a polenta made from ground maize.  The lamb sausage was soft, moist and delicious.  The sweet and acidic tomato onion gravy gave the rich and creamy pap a wonderful kick of flavor.  After learning that Mandela loved umphokoqo (pap with sour milk and sweet chicken), I was anxious to taste pap and see what all the fuss was about.  It was sweet, creamy, and perfectly complemented the lamb sausage.

My second course, the Bobotie was served with white rice and shredded coconut and three condiments (Pico de gallo, Apricot Chutney and a creamy banana mash).  The custard was a bit bland, but the crunchy sliced almonds added an interesting nutty flavor and textural contrast to the savory meatloaf.  The white rice with shredded coconut was sweet, buttery and simple.  The condiments added a unique dimension to the dish; the pico de gallo added heat and acidity, the apricot chutney was sweet yet spicy, and the banana mash was creamy and rich.  I wasn’t a fan of the banana mash, but when mixed with the other ingredients it was palatable.

The tasting menu’s featured dessert was Warm Malva pudding with vanilla ice cream.  Despite being an advocate of healthy eating, Malva pudding was one of Mandela’s weaknesses.  According to the article, he ate it in copious amounts whenever it was served. 

The malva pudding had a moist sponge cake texture to it.  It was rich, sweet, and when paired with the cold vanilla ice cream, was truly decadent. It was the perfect way to complete the tasting menu.

I’m glad I visited Indian Road Cafe that night, it changed my perception of Mandela forever.  He went from being an iconic untouchable political figure into an ordinary guy I could share opinions with about food. I wonder, if we had ever met would we have talked about politics or food.  I’ll never know, but what I do know is that my little cafe in Inwood is amazing and I would’ve recommended it to him.  Don’t take my word for it, go taste for yourself.  ¡Buen provecho!

Indian Road Café
600 West 218th Street @ Indian Road
New York, NY 10034
Tel: 212-942-7451

HOURS: Visit the website for their schedules.

ATMOSPHERE: Causal and relaxed. 


SOUND LEVEL: Conversational. 


RECOMMENDED DISHES:  The current winter menu is good, but the spring menu is coming out soon.  Check the website for the Spring entrees.

BEVERAGES: Soda, liquor, water, various types of teas and coffees.

PRICE RANGE: See the website.

Indian Road Café on Urbanspoon

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