4 L's (out of 5)
Two-month-old Xai Xai (pronounced "shy shy") claims to be Manhattan's first exclusively South African boÃ®te, offering a smattering of native wines and a handful of beers. The inspired décor employs imported tree-trunk beams and door handles shaped like Africa's silhouette—as, of course, they all are in South Africa. Exposed brick and warm lighting make it a welcoming respite from its windy Hell's Kitchen block, and tight seating forces patrons, not unpleasantly, to make nice with their neighbors.
The pared-down list is enough for the sometime wino but unlikely to floor any SA sommeliers. Most bottles fall between $25 and $50 (only one exceeded a Benjamin), and generous pours encourage sharing with your date. Mine ordered a simple Pinot Grigio to start; I tried a sweet Riesling. Both were satisfying and fine companions to the artisanal cheese plate—one of the few tapas-style samplers of the hearty traditional cuisine. Other dishes included meat-filled pastries, pickled veggies and a rustic and addictive beef jerky, light-years beyond a gas station Slim Jim. A shared glass of a Pinotage-Merlot blend was better than the whites we tried, as the red varietal is a better representative of SA's wine offerings.
The service was casual, if unconfident, with the knowledgeable native-South African staff happy to offer succinct recommendations. You'd do well to ask before ordering, however—it wasn't until after my friend had tried his Pinot that our waiter told us it was nothing special ("a bit California," as he put it). The bill was adorably presented in a cigar box that many patrons will undoubtedly contemplate stealing (I should have brought a bigger purse) and came filled with bite-sized Hershey's bars. Wine, cheese, meat pies and chocolate? I plan on being a regular until my metabolism craps out.
The how-do-you-pronounce-that name is taken from a laid-back Mozambique resort town where owners Brett Curtin and Tanya Hira dreamed up the barÂ¬Â¬—fitting, as Xai Xai is an ideal place for happy hour escapists to indulge in authentic African fare that never seems contrived.
Xai Xai Wine Bar
375 W 51st St., Hell's Kitchen