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Pro Fusion

I once rode an ostrich across the dusty grasslands of the Great Karroo, the vast savanna in the South African heartland. My wild ride lasted but a few seconds. The big, stupid bird took off with a jolt, and I quickly slid off its tail feathers and into a cloud of dirt kicked up by the bulgy-eyed beast. Revenge came a few days later in a restaurant in Cape Town where I dined on a big, red slab of ostrich that was both tender and earthy -- and decidedly unbirdlike. Ostrich meat bleeds like beef but has less fat and cholesterol than chicken. Despite the health benefits of this bovine substitute, ostrich meat, even in South Africa, remains a bit of a novelty item.

ZAN(Z)BAR, Fort Lauderdale's inappropriately named sole outpost of South African cuisine (the island of Zanzibar is north of South Africa, jutting into the Indian Ocean off of Tanzania), serves farm-raised Utah ostrich sliced thin like flank steak and swimming in a gooey, jamlike, brandied blackberry sauce. The ostrich is the most expensive item on the menu and the least inspired. The underseasoned meat is overwhelmed by the ice cream topping of a sauce. Barring that single misstep, ZAN(Z)BAR is a creative establishment with an attentive staff and what is probably the finest selection of South African wines in Florida. It is the perfect place for a beginner's exploration of the odd mishmash that is South African cuisine.

Blending influences from all corners of the globe, the food of South Africa is the ultimate in fusion cuisine. At the turn of the century, the British, South Africa's colonial masters, shipped in boatloads of workers from India to build the railroads. Today South Africa boasts one of the largest Indian populations outside India. South African cuisine blends the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding of Britain with the fiery curries and tandooris of the Indian subcontinent. It also combines the boiled blandness of Dutch cuisine with the nutty spiciness of Indonesian. Add a buttery infusion of French Huguenot (persecuted Protestants who helped put South Africa on the wine-producing map), and the influences of more than a dozen indigenous tribes and a stew of other European immigrant groups, and you have a culinary melting pot more diverse than our own. The menu at ZAN(Z)BAR reflects that diversity with fare ranging from the earthy traditional to the refined nouvelle, all served in a setting that is a whimsical caricature of South Africa, the wealthiest and most modern country in Africa.

The unobtrusive little restaurant on Las Olas Boulevard is swathed in gauzy mosquito netting. The walls are covered with scowling African masks, miniature spears, and picture-postcard paintings of wild beasts. The place feels like the dining room in some regal game lodge. Prominently displayed on one wall is a portrait of the father of old South Africa, nineteenth-century Boer leader Paul Kruger, while on another wall is a framed photo of the father of the new South Africa, Nelson Mandela -- a man who may have more than a little to do with ZAN(Z)BAR's success.

"Nelson would be welcome in our restaurant," says South African expatriate Michael Egdes, who three years ago opened ZAN(Z)BAR as a coffee-and-wine bar with his American partner, James Sands. That was shortly after South Africa's first free election, which put the last stake in the heart of apartheid and made it politically correct once again to buy (and eat) South African. Egdes, a Johannesburg native and former advertising executive, fled his homeland in the mid-'80s, when a wave of nervous white folks were packing their bags (and their bucks) and heading for American shores (mostly to places that reminded them of home, warm-weather pockets like South Florida and Southern California).

Some of those expatriates started showing up in Egdes' little coffee-and-wine bar after word spread of his large selection of South African wines, most rarely available in Florida. To keep patrons coming, he began offering a few traditional South African dishes, and then a few more, and soon a restaurant was born. Although expats make up 10 percent of the restaurant's clientele, ZAN(Z)BAR draws all sorts of adventurous diners, including Loretta "Hot Lips Houlihan" Swit and Armand Assante.

They come for the samoosas, vegetarian, golden-brown triangles filled with curried peas and carrots. South African samoosas are close relatives of the Indian samosa, which, in its vegetarian incarnation, is usually stuffed with potatoes and other vegetables. ZAN(Z)BAR's samoosas are made without potatoes, and they're a favorite of Egdes. Both he and Sands are vegetarians, but as their meaty menu attests, they have a capitalist appreciation for carnivores. "We try to take a reasonable approach to serving meat," says Egdes. "We avoid serving baby animals." No lamb or veal is featured on the menu.

Other appetizers I tasted were slightly more exotic. The "Crocodile River" alligator croquettes with apple-horseradish cream sauce were pasty little cakes with the flavor of crabmeat and a sharp horseradish kick. They were slightly addictive. Equally interesting were the shredded crab-and-salmon cakes with spicy key lime mustard. Although the crab and salmon flavors seemed to be battling for dominance, the cakes were a pleasant prelude to the more heavily seasoned main dishes.

My favorite entree was the most traditionally rural dish on the menu, the boerewors and pap with chunky tomato-onion gravy. Boerewors are the kielbasa of South Africa, thick, spicy sausages most often served grilled over an open flame. ("Boerewors" is Afrikaans for "Boer sausage.") ZAN(Z)BAR's boerewors are made for the restaurant by a South African butcher who recently relocated from South Florida to North Carolina. My dinner companion proclaimed them the second-best sausages he'd ever tasted and promptly ordered a frozen package to go. The restaurant serves its sausages piled atop a mound of pap, a polentalike cornmeal porridge traditionally cooked in big, black, iron pots and consumed in massive quantities by South African miners.

Another traditional dish is the "sweet curry" bobotie, a thick casserole that's like a curried shepherd's pie. ZAN(Z)BAR's chefs give the dish a healthful reinterpretation, replacing the traditional ground lamb with turkey and the rich egg custard with yogurt. Neither of the original ingredients is missed in this lighter version of a Cape Malay specialty. (The Cape Malay are the golden-skinned descendants of Indonesians and Malaysians who went to South Africa with the Dutch.) Nutty Tanzanian vegetable rice, shredded coconut, and sweet banana chutney accompany the bobotie.

To wash down the enticing flavors, I followed our waitress' suggestion and began with a rich and chocolate-y Hartenberg cabernet sauvignon from the Stellenbosch region outside Cape Town. We also sampled a complex and fruity Glen Carlou merlot. Both wines are difficult to find outside South Africa, which, after years as an international pariah state, is finally being recognized as the great wine-producing region that it is.

ZAN(Z)BAR's award-winning desserts were a mainstay of the place back when it was merely a wine-and-coffee bar. The most indulgent way to sample them is to order the aptly named "Death by Dessert," an overwhelming selection of six rich desserts for two. Crowded onto the plate were thick slices of white-chocolate-and-macadamia-nut cheesecake, key lime pie with walnut pecan crust, triple-chocolate wildebeest cake, white- and dark-chocolate mousse cake, cinnamon-dusted custard milk tart, and warm malva pudding with apricot jam and vanilla custard.

Only the malva pudding should be avoided. Dry and imbued with the acrid flavor of cloves, it was a far cry from the moist and butterscotch-y version I once tasted in South Africa. Egdes assured me this was not the family recipe and has set about trying to find a better version. Still, it's a wonder that everything else is so good (and authentic) at ZAN(Z)BAR -- none of the half-dozen chefs has ever been to South Africa.

ZAN(Z)BAR. 602 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, (954)767-3377. Open for lunch and dinner Sunday to Thursday from 11 a.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.

Crocodile River alligator croquettes
$9.95

Samoosas
$6.95

Boerewors and pap
$14.95

Char-grilled filet of ostrich Karroo
$29.95

Death by Dessert
$15.95


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