Preservation Station

Go for Tartare, Not the Bar at Springbok

The Downtown South African spot deserves more recognition for its food than its ping pong.

By Alice Levitt July 22, 2016

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Beef tartare with pickled ramps and bread with smoked butter.

Image: Alice Levitt

When most Houstonians think of South African food, the only place on their minds is Peli Peli. But while Paul Friedman may be the most visible Afrikaaner chef in the city, he's not the only one. Ivan Giani joined executive chef Seth Greenburg as chef de cuisine at Springbok last year. He says that while the now two-year-old restaurant is no more South African due to his presence, he has changed recipes to reflect his mother's rustic home cooking, as opposed to the dishes Greenburg adapted from books.

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Short rib bunny chow with two kinds of sambal.

Image: Alice Levitt

That may show in dishes such as bobotie fried bread, with its heavily spiced ground beef, or the banana-flavored curry sauce for his bunny chow, a classic South African stew served in half a loaf of homemade bread. But much of the appeal of Springbok is the dishes that only the most elegant mothers would ever attempt.

The tartare above is mixed with ramps that Greenburg began pickling last year, and served with a sesame-heavy rendition of the Egyptian spice mix duqqah. Perhaps the best part of the the dish, though, is the soft smoked butter spread on sweet house bread. The cream, salt and smoke do wondrous things to the beef jangling with alliums.

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Grilled peaches with speck and burrata.

Image: Alice Levitt

Yes, there is thick-cut biltong as well as exceptional air-dried sausages that Springbok calls "chili bites" but which tasted to me like a spicy version of the coriander-laden droëwors I grew up eating. (Either way, think of the fanciest Slim Jim you've ever eaten.) But the cures don't end there. Thinly sliced speck serves as a base for slices of grilled peaches slices of burrata. It's a sleek dish that gets the job done in three ingredients—not including herbs and bread, which are nice but unnecessary. 

Add in a long-cooked rabbit stew dotted with carrots, potatoes and ramps, and the end result at Springbok is a very different kind of South African restaurant from brassy Peli Peli. This is quieter cuisine, though not without fireworks of its own. Springbok may be best known for its bar scene, but guests who skip the food are missing a delicious education.

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