Restaurant Reviews

Trainsmash and Bobotie at Out of Africa

Pap with trainsmash is a South African dish I encountered on the Sunday brunch buffet line at Out of Africa in Sugar Land. The pap was a yellow cornmeal mush, and the trainsmash was a sauce with large chunks of tomato and big slices of onion in it. It was a pleasant enough flavor combination that reminded me of polenta and marinara sauce. It went great with my meaty Boerewors sausage omelet.

The Sunday jazz brunch is a great way to sample a wide variety of the unusual South African dishes served at Out of Africa. Half of the items on the restaurant's menu are set out on the buffet line on Sundays. Then the waitperson presents you with a list of omelets and asks you which one you want. Add a bottomless mimosa and a jazz pianist and you have a helluva deal for 20 bucks.

My favorite dish on the buffet was the bobotie, a ground lamb and beef hash cooked with fruit and raisins in a curry sauce and topped with an egg custard. Like much of South African cuisine, the dish is Malaysian in origin. At first, the bobotie was too bland for my tastes. But the waiter informed me that I had neglected to douse it with the peri-peri sauce and ginger chutney that sit alongside it on the buffet table. With these traditional accompaniments generously applied, the dish gets wildly interesting.

Also on the buffet, the lamb sosaties were spectacular. These are skewers of marinated lamb chunks and brandy-soaked dried apricots grilled until the lamb is medium-rare — what a great combination. Boerewors, a traditional South African sausage, was a little on the dry side. Durban chicken curry was bland, but the peri-peri chicken livers were very good if you like spicy food and chicken livers (and I do).

Peri-peri (or piri-piri) is the Portuguese name for the fiery African birdseye pepper, which grows wild in much of Africa. When you see the term "peri-peri" on a menu, you ­assume the dish is going to be spicy, although it's hard to tell how spicy. The peri-peri chicken livers on Out of Africa's Sunday brunch buffet were very mild. But the peri-peri burger I ordered almost took the top of my head off.

Out of Africa's burger menu featured three normal-sounding sandwiches — a Hawaiian burger with pineapple, a mushroom burger with Swiss and a peppercorn-­encrusted burger. Then there was the "monkey gland" burger, made with the South African barbecue sauce of the same name, a train­smash burger and a peri-peri burger.

The peri-peri burger was completely coated with bright orange pepper sauce. After a couple of bites, I had to give up on it. The damn thing was too hot to eat, and I am no chile pepper wimp. On my second visit, I tried a trainsmash burger. There was no problem with the heat level, but the burger patty was tough and dry. If you like your burgers extremely lean, you're in luck here.

The tomato and onion sauce came in handy for moistening the juiceless burger.

It's fun to eat "train­smash." At first, I imagined the term was the South African equivalent of "roadkill." The tomato was the blood and the onions were the bones, I theorized, to the great disgust of my tablemates. Checking the etymology later, I discovered that "trainsmash" is more often spelled "train smash" and comes from military mess halls. It is evidently a South African and Australian soldier's description of casseroles made from a conglomeration of leftovers.

In two brunch visits, I really got to like this place. Out of Africa's location in a white bread shopping center on the Southwest Freeway feeder in Sugar Land is deceptive. Inside, the space is exotically appointed in burnt sienna and mustard hues accented with animal prints and African sculptures. For decorations, there is a herd of large carved zoo animals. But the real surprise is out the back door.

If you walk all the way through the dining room, you come to an outdoor bar on a huge deck overlooking a man-made lake. When the weather is nice, this is a wonderful place to sit. And thanks to the restaurant's exotic clientele, it's also a great place to people-watch. Out of Africa has become a gathering spot for Houston's surprisingly sizable South African population — and they are an entertaining crew.

Ever eaten à la carte dinner at an Indian restaurant with a great lunchtime buffet? Kind of a shock to get one little bowl of saag paneer for the same price you paid for the whole buffet, right? Granted, each dish is more carefully prepared when it's made to order, but the wild difference in prices is hard to ignore.

On my final visit to Out of Africa, I took a seat on the deck at lunchtime and looked over the actual menu for the first time. On the dinner menu, the bobotie was $16. I attempted to order a curried shrimp salad on the lunch menu for $10. The waitress returned from the kitchen and said the chef was still preparing the shrimp and suggested I order something else. So I asked for the Durban chicken curry prepared extra hot. That wasn't ready either, she said.

So I threw myself at her mercy, asking, "What have you got I can eat?"

"Lamb Cape Malay Curry" was her response, and she promised I could have it extra spicy. The curries at Out of Africa look like thin stews. If you are expecting the kind of thick herbal gravy you get with an Indian or Thai curry, you will be disappointed. But the lamb stew I ate for lunch was interesting in its own right.

The curry contained lots of lamb, red and yellow peppers and onions, and it was served in a baking dish with yellow rice on the side. In another bowl, I got shredded coconut and banana slices, and in a little two-chambered dish there was a spicy peri-peri pico de gallo and a zesty ginger chutney. I dumped the curry over the rice, topped it with the coconut and banana and dipped each bite in chutney. Some of the lamb chunks were meltingly tender, and some were a little firm.

The dish wasn't as hot as the peri-peri burger, but it was muy picante. The waitress told me that since I had asked for "extra spicy," the chef had made my curry with Thai chile peppers. It was a satisfying lunch, but at $12.50, plus an iced tea and a tip, the lamb curry seemed a little steep compared to the lavish Sunday brunch. Or maybe I'm just being cheap.

I suggest you call and make a reservation for the Sunday jazz brunch at Out of Africa — it gets pretty busy. But you can stop by and have some pap and ­trainsmash on the patio any old time.

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Contact Robb Walsh at [email protected]

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh