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First Look at Springbok, a South African Gastropub in Downtown Houston

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Located on Main Street, just around the corner from The Flying Saucer in the heart of downtown, is the cool new South African bar and gastropub, Springbok. Named after a type of African antelope and the South African rugby team of the same name, it's fitting that the decor includes wall mounted animal trophies of the springbok, eelands, and wildebeest, juxtaposed in surprising harmony against a wall full of framed rugby shirts from around the world.

Though it might be considered a sports bar (there are five, 80-inch flat screen TVs hanging from the walls) there's a swanky, Rat Pack-esque feel to the place thanks to the beautiful chandeliers that hang from souring two-story high ceilings, long drape-y white curtains, and series of square columns that are decorative even as they act as structural supports for the building. It's the kind of place that you might imagine in a chic downtown hotel in the heart of Manhattan. The bar, too, is a gleaming dark polished wood, incredibly long and incredibly attractive, with a backlit stack of colorful liquor bottles that gives it almost a stained-glass window-type glow.

The attractive space attracts a good after-work crowd, and on the night we were there, there were small groups of five to six people, dressed nicely or in business casual, enjoying drinks and conversation. As the evening wore on, the bar area began filling up with what appeared to be guys just getting off work.

Owner Peter Walker, who opened the first Springbok Pub and Grill in Los Angeles in 2003, had been looking to expand for some time when he met Houstonian Andrew Segal, now his partner in the Houston location. "Houston has the second largest South African community in the United States," says Walker, who cites other factors, such as the strong international contingent and the bar's physical location near Houston's most notable downtown high rises as other reasons for opening in Houston.

The bar program is headed by Michael Mclemore, previously of Hearsay Gastro Pub. Mclemore's craft cocktail program highlights South African favorites like the Springbok Shandy, a blend of beer, lemonade and bitters that is finished with a flaming orange peel. Other notable drinks include the Pimm's Passion, essentially a Pimm's cup made with passion fruit puree, as well as the Springbok shot, made with South African Amarula creme liqueur layered with creme de menthe. A good selection of single malt scotch, blended scotch, whisky, tequila, gim and digestifs are also available. Texas beers are available on tap.

The food is probably one of the most exciting aspects of Springbok. The menu is an homage to the foods that Walker grew up eating at home, food that complements the bar menu, but is also very traditionally South African. Executive chef Seth Greenburg, who comes from Los Angeles with fine dining background from working in establishments such as L'Orangerie in Los Angeles and Cuisine Français in Chicago with two-star Michelin chef Gilles Epié, offers an eclectic menu of items that include the basic hamburger alongside dishes like the bunny chow, a bread loaf filled with curry and mango chutney.

Daily specials, such as a superb duck confit spicy wings -- a play on the buffalo wings -- will titillate the palate with a glaze of sweet, vinegar-y, spicy deliciousness. Favorites such as the Boerewors (pronounced "buh-rhee") roll, made with South African beef and pork belly sausage, with lawnmower kolsch onions and whiskey mustard are a big hit. A great hangover helper is the poutine-like take on french fries, made with lamb sausage served over hand-cut fries and topped with a farm egg and harissa.

We sampled a beautiful lamb vindaloo as well as an amazing dish of oxtail in red curry served on a cast iron plate with glazed carrots and yorkshire pudding. Both were well-spiced and deeply flavored, hearty dishes that curry fans will definitely appreciate. They also happen to wash down exceedingly well with beer.

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