I was ravenous after a lengthy walk beside the misty Huangpu River along Shanghai’s famous Bund. As a quick fix, I bought what I took to be a white bread bun kept warm in one of the bamboo steamers ranged along the open pavement of a side street. When I bit into it, I was surprised by a jet of hot pressurised soup squirting into my mouth. Magically concealed within the smooth bun was this delicious broth and a tangy pork filling. The secret I later discovered was they introduce the soup in gelatine form when making the bun; it then liquefies when heated. It was the best thing I had tasted in China, and at less than a rand each, I lived on them for a full week.
When I returned to Cape Town, culture shocked, I asked everywhere after these xiao long bao. Not one local Chinese restaurant made them and the proprietors invariably (and begrudgingly) shook their heads. Until that is, Haiku opened. The manager immediately knew what I was after, and served me char siu bao. It is similar, but without the broth, and as Haiku is halal, it comes with a duck filling. The char siu bao is still on the menu, but often doughy and under par these days, and I have no compunction sending it back on occasion.
Fortunately, as a frequent visitor, I can attest that pleasingly high standards have otherwise been maintained at Haiku for the past three years. The restaurant consists of a series of open to view kitchens specialising in different Asian cuisines – sushi, Chinese dim sum, a Japanese teppanyaki grill, a Thai wok section and an imported hung oven for Peking duck. The crispy aromatic Peking duck served with small pancakes started out as their signature dish, but is somewhat overrated. Also, rather avoid the wok, noodle and rice dishes. You go to Haiku for what is superlative sushi and probably the best dim sum on the continent.
The menu works on a star system. Each star is the equivalent of R39, and dishes range from one to four stars in value. Having tried almost everything on the menu, I can now recommend several foolproof dishes.
Ask your waiter beforehand to stagger the meal in three courses – sushi, dim sum and then the grills. This avoids everything arriving simultaneously from the various kitchens.
To start there are a range of mixed sashimi platters, but if you prefer to select try these: the succulent salmon nigiri, the inverted prawn tempura in-out roll with its crispy interior, and an addictive tuna chili tataki (carefully fold it, if the green chili ring lands directly on your tongue you will taste little else for the next ten minutes).
The sashimi platter (₤18) at Haiku’s London branch in Mayfair, is smaller than in Cape Town, but magnificently presented, arriving on a bamboo mat and orchid leaf with an oyster on a bed of salt, and delicately decorated with herb sprigs and tiny marigolds.
The London bill of fare also includes a few items such as chicken tikka (₤10), tandoori lamb chops (₤12) and paneer shashlik (₤6) from Bukhara’s menu, their sister restaurant.
After sushi, move on to the dim sum. So fresh and green is the spinach in the translucent har gau vegetarians swoon. Other favourites include the spicy prawn toast which comes as little flying-saucer shaped breads. In the London outlet it’s ₤8 and a bit oily. Most guests baulk at the scallop cheung fan roll, which my dining companion, the inimitable Munchkin, has dubbed “the snotterige dingetjie”. An accurate description of its outside texture, it’s nonetheless well worth the effort to get it from the plate to your mouth with chopsticks. On one visit to Haiku, I spotted Trevor Manual attempting something similar.
For vegetarians I recommend the mixed vegetable tempura with its assortment of brinjals, butternut, green beans and various tubers in a prefect, light Japanese batter.
Conclude mains with something from the grill. The succulent squares of beef teppanyaki (₤14 in London) make one imagine the beast was gently massaged to death. The seared black bean tuna served with glass noodles and baby asparagus is also unsurpassable.
For dessert there is a choice of rich ice-creams, sybaritic chocolate spring rolls and banana crêpes all reasonably priced and heavenly enough to be served in the afterlife.
The wine list is extensive, but steep. However, locals who complain they don’t get overseas often enough might wish to consider that on their London wine list Haiku charges ₤68 for a De Wetshof Chardonnay and ₤78 for a Hamilton Russel Pinot Noir. Diners are far better off with a Thelema Sauvignon for ₤28 and a Meerlust Cabernet 2004 for ₤25 (reasonable by London standards). An Ernie Els Red Blend 2003 is priced at a whopping ₤135.
Both London and Cape Town have the same distinctive furnishings, solid wood tables and wooden screens. The imported granite wall cladding unfortunately makes the acoustics difficult. I am not alone in my criticism of the unbearable, hopelessly inappropriate, thumping house music played at Cape Town’s Haiku. Looking at the patrons, very few of them care for it, and it seems to be loud for the benefit of the cloth-eared club-stricken waiters. Before 8pm, it is usually softer. But it means the Haiku experience is restricted to a table of two, four at most. Don’t take large groups as you won’t be able to hear beyond your immediate neighbour.
A final note: Haiku operates two seatings, at 6:30 and 9pm. You’ll be pressured to go if you’re tardy.
Haiku, 33 Church Street, Cape Town. Open Monday to Saturday for lunch (12 – 3pm) and Monday – Sunday for dinner (6pm – 11pm). Minimum order two stars for lunch (R78) or four stars for dinner (R156). Tel: 021 424 7000
Haiku, 15 New Burlinton Place, London. Tel: 207 494 4777.