Mere feet away from the Bentley- and Maserati-choked valet stand at Phipps Plaza, an oasis of safari chic appears. Thick canvas drapes create a sense of seclusion from the mall hubbub. Inside, papier-mâché antelope heads grace a sunset-orange wall and the words of Toto, blessing the rains in Africa, fill the air. This is Yebo, a new bar/restaurant from Justin Anthony (10 Degrees South), where the South again meets South Africa.
Yebo's brand of fusion uses the cuisine of South Africa as a departure point for a more populist trip exploring the country's flavors. It's location in one of the South's most high-end shopping destinations demands the menu be at once exotic and widely appealing. Where else in town can you plop down with your bags full of Gucci for a choice of ostrich or fried chicken, barbecue-sauced pork or bobotie bunny chow, and then wash it down with a $180 bottle of South African wine? As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti, a restaurant with such disparate aims is sure to hit a bull's-eye in spots, and fall short in others. So it goes with Yebo.
Yebo is a sister restaurant to 10 Degrees South, where the menu hews closer to a pure take on upscale South African flavors, a mishmash of Indian, Portuguese, Dutch, Malaysian, and indigenous African influences. Anthony and executive chef Jorge Ortiz have focused Yebo's offerings on small plates geared toward snacking and drinking. The menu is dotted with dishes that emphasize the South over Africa — fried chicken, mac and cheese, shrimp and grits — although some do get a South African twist. The Georgia shrimp and pan-seared grit cakes feature an intense, tomato-based chakalaka sauce — a spicy South African relish. It's a nice departure from the traditional presentation, pitting sweet Georgia shrimp against the fiery chakalaka and slightly smoky seared grit cakes.
The kitchen at Yebo dials up and down various South African and Southern influences dish by dish, but the hits and misses are haphazard rather than centered in either cuisine. Fried chicken is also paired with a spicy sauce — this time a Portuguese-influenced peri-peri made with crushed chilies and herbs — as well as a sweet corn purée. But chalky breading on the boneless chunks of chicken dooms it to disappointment. Likewise, a straightforward skillet of mac and cheese and a tempura-ish tilapia fish and chips are both fine and forgettable.
A section of the menu titled "bunny chow" features an assortment of dishes served in bread bowls. The term bunny chow refers to a type of curry-filled bread bowl that originated in the Indian community of Durban, South Africa. At Yebo, the bunny chows range from traditional (such as the bobotie, with sweet ground beef curry and raisins topped with a fried egg) to strictly Southern (roast pork with a sticky-sweet barbecue sauce and coleslaw) to what-were-they-thinking (bland roasted zucchini in a pasty, gritty, spicy goat cheese sauce). The bobotie bunny chow is the best, delivering a surprisingly harmonious contrast between the sweet curry and the rich warmth of a good old runny egg.
Lean and juicy ostrich sliders feature dark, gamey patties similar to lamb or buffalo. The ostrich comes atop a thin pile of arugula and a scant smear of peri-peri aïoli, but it's the flavorful meat that steals the show.
Offerings on a short cocktail list, such as the Safari Sunset (rye whiskey, peach, and basil), hew dangerously toward the sweet and fruity. But the wine menu presents an opportunity to try a number of deserving South African wines. Most of Yebo's 16 South African wines are available by the glass, so go ahead and experiment. The Ken Forrester chenin blanc (South Africa's most common grape) is a pleasant introduction, a bit like an oaked California chardonnay that's got a bright jolt of citrusy acidity.
The service at Yebo is friendly, though sometimes stilted and green. An upbeat playlist that mixes in contemporary African music keeps things hopping even when the food delivery lags. If you're headed to a movie upstairs at Phipps, you may want to simply grab a glass of wine and a quick snack, like the tender slices of beef jerky that resemble thick bresaola, or the Parmesan/peri-peri popcorn.
As is, Yebo is a nice departure from the ordinary, especially given the setting in Phipps Plaza. If Yebo would focus more on the unique aspects of South African cuisine, it just might earn destination status.
Editor's note: Originally, this review identified Philippe Haddad as the executive chef at Yebo, however, the restaurant's current executive chef is Jorge Ortiz.
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