There are those of you, we reckon, who would (quite rightly) question Shaka Zulu as candidate for our prestigious Secret Camden series. After all, isn’t the column reserved for non-touristy gems hidden away from the high street? Those surprising backstreet finds?

Well we would have barked an emphatic ‘yes’; but after descending three floors of the vast, rattlingly-empty wood-carved subterranean palace deep beneath the former horse tunnels, and finding a real-life busy, buzzy basement dining area nudging up to a steaming open kitchen, Shaka Zulu strangely felt as secret as anywhere.

‘Like stumbling across civilization after months in the desert,’ quipped Mrs Kentishtowner. Well, as you can imagine, understatement is as alien to her as it probably is to a two-humped camel.

Almost every table was taken. And moreover, it was a typical mixed London crowd of couples, cocktail-sipping girls, and suits. Service was attentive as we were shown to our upright carved wooden chairs, where we could observe the pots and pans and bustle of chefs beyond the pass.

We had been invited to try the new menu relaunched under the auspices of native South African ‘executive’ chef Stephen Boucher. Does that mean he doesn’t actually cook? Who cares, it’s a riot. Take your pick from animals normally observed at a safe distance behind bars: zebra, crocodile, ostrich, buffalo. ‘It’s like being back at Circus in the 90s,’ said Mrs Kentishtowner. And no, she wasn’t referring to a mispent youth spent as a sword-swallower.

Starters weren’t bad: ‘crocodile cigars’, the use of the plural belying the fact that it was a singular, foot-long spring roll, nestled on deliciously sweet roasted peppers and onions. A game terrine (left), however, proved rather fridge-cold and crumbly, the accompanying quince chutney providing a needed zing. Bread was interesting: crunchy, and livened by a fruity oil.

But it was the mains that got us excited. Smoked Black Cod fillet with spinach melted in its buttery sauce, whilst a rare Springbok (gazelle) loin, served with wilted greens and juniper berry jus, was a revelation: as tender as the most pillowy Romney Marsh lamb, but with a winning sweetness.

Desserts continued at a solid culinary level. Chocolate brownie was of perfect texture, yet it couldn’t compare to a peppermint crisp tart.

‘Like a slow hit of happiness,’ sighed Mrs KT, clearly now fancying herself as something of a poet. ‘I’ve eaten so much food my feet are swelling up,’ she added a moment later, cleaning the plate with a sauced finger, before wriggling in the not-too-comfortable upright chair.

Navigating our way back up to ground level and the slippery cobbles of the Stables Market, we agreed the experience had felt something like a holiday, although we weren’t quite sure where. South Africa? A cruise-ship? Disneyland?

None of those things specifically. But we agreed there was plenty to admire not only in the surrealness of Shaka Zulu’s ambition but in its cooking. And we were sure of one thing: our relaxed Wednesday evening foodie experience was the opposite to how the place must feel on a packed, jumpin’ weekend club night. Yikes.

Kentishtowner Rating: 7.5/10

A regular meal for two with three courses and wine is around £120. But there are plenty of deals online.

Words & Pictures: Stephen Emms

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