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Review: Zweli’s Zimbabwean cuisine serves comfort food to make you feel right at home

Zweli’s in Durham serves a half chicken with a side of collard greens cooked with peanut butter and Jollof rice.
Zweli’s in Durham serves a half chicken with a side of collard greens cooked with peanut butter and Jollof rice. jleonard@newsobserver.com

Up for a gastronomic adventure? How about Zimbabwean?

Leonardo Williams, who opened Zweli’s with his wife (and the restaurant’s namesake) last summer, tells me their restaurant is the only one in the United States specializing in Zimbabwean cuisine. It doesn’t get more exotic than that.

But don’t let that scare you. You probably won’t even know how to pronounce the names of some dishes (I didn’t), but the restaurant’s extraordinarily helpful wait staff stand ready to answer any questions. And, as it turns out, much of the food (which is scratch-cooked by Zimbabwe native Zweli Williams and her small staff in an open kitchen) has a similar counterpart in another more familiar cuisine.

If you grew up in the South, a lot of those dishes might even seem like comfort food. Magwinyas, for instance, are deep-fried wheat dough fritters with a crispy surface that makes them a fine stand-in for hushpuppies. Alternatively, you can get your beignet fix in the form of magwinyas dusted with powdered sugar.

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The Zimbabwean cuisine at Zweli’s in Durham is scratch-cooked by Zimbabwe native Zweli Williams and her small staff in an open kitchen. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

The cornmeal-based staple dish sadza is sometimes compared to polenta. It’s also known as ugali or pap, depending on where in Africa it’s consumed; the chalkboard running the length of the dining room gives all three names. But to any Southerner, it’s sure to evoke another staple closer to home: grits.

Collard greens cooked with peanut butter (the menu doesn’t have a special name for this one) combines two Southern favorites in a single dish. The result is a felicitous marriage of flavors and textures, the peanut butter softening the bitterness of the greens and providing a luxurious mouthfeel that makes this Southerner wonder why we never thought of it.

Pick two or three more dishes from the list of sides to go with the collards, and you can DIY your way to an adventurous riff on a Southern diner vegetable plate. You’ll definitely want the chakalaka — think baked beans, amped up with a complex blend of spices and a finishing note of freshly grated ginger. And fried curry cabbage, a fragrant play on another diner classic. Jollof rice, a peppery pilaf punctuated with tomatoes and chiles, ought to round out the plate nicely. Oh wait, don’t forget to add an order of magwinyas.

A fundamental difference between these dishes and what you’d get in a typical Southern diner (other than the seasoning) is the fact that all but one of the sides at Zweli’s are vegan.

The one that isn’t? Beef samosas, which Leonardo Williams explains are a legacy of Zimbabwe’s immigrant Indian community. (If you were wondering where that curry in the cabbage came from, now you know). You won’t need Williams to tell you that these crispy, spice-fragrant pyramids of pastry are keepers.

So is boerewors, a rustic sausage that’s available in a wrap or as an entree with your choice of two sides. Tracing its roots to an altogether different source (the name translates to “farmer’s sausage” in Afrikaans), boerewors wouldn’t be out of place in a European butcher shop. The mildly spiced all-beef version at Zweli’s is custom-made for the restaurant by a Zimbabwean native butcher in Ayden (who knew?).

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Zweli’s crispy,spice-fragrant beef samosas are a legacy of Zimbabwe’s immigrant Indian community. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

But the star of the show at Zweli’s is piri piri chicken, seasoned with its namesake chile and grilled over an open flame. Piri piri is a fiery chile native to southeastern Africa (it’s similar to the bird’s-eye chile seen in Asian cuisines), but it’s judiciously applied here, adding a little zing to the flavor without overwhelming it. The chicken is offered just about any way you can imagine it — wings, breast, quarter (light or dark meat), half of whole, even in a chicken salad. Even the breast is juicy enough that I’ll never be able to resist ordering a whole bird and taking the leftovers home.

As a novice to Zimbabwean cuisine, I’m hardly qualified to assess the authenticity of the food at Zweli’s. But I can tell you I only encountered one disappointing dish: house-cut piri piri potato chips that were limp and greasy. Turns out they had an issue with the fryer that day.

On another occasion, an order of fried curry cabbage arrived lukewarm but tasted so good I thought maybe that was the correct temperature. When I asked Williams (he’s usually in the dining room), he apologized and explained that it should have been served hot. A few minutes later, our server apologized. Then the cook arrived with an apology of his own, accompanied by a small bag of complimentary beef samosas to take home. When I went to pay the bill, I discovered that Williams had comped not just the cabbage but also the piri piri chicken entree it had accompanied.

I know what you’re thinking: They figured out that you’re a restaurant critic. Judging by the number of times I witnessed other customers on the receiving end of Zweli’s generosity and hospitality, I honestly don’t think so — though they’ll no doubt put two and two together when they read this.

Zweli’s is clearly a labor of love. The Williamses built many of the furnishings in the colorful shoestring budget dining room themselves, and decorate the place with local art. That spirit has extended to the staff. If it’s possible to feel at home in a restaurant while eating a cuisine you’ve never had before, this is it.

ggcox55@gmail.com

Zweli’s

4600 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd., Suite 26, Durham

984-219-7555

zwelis.com

Cuisine: Zimbabwean

Rating: 3 1/2 stars

Prices: $-$$

Atmosphere: casual, colorful, warmly inviting

Noise level: moderate

Service: exceptionally friendly and helpful

Recommended: piri piri chicken, magwinyas, beef samosas, collards, chakalaka, jollof rice, boerewors

Open: Lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday.

Reservations: accepted

Other: beer and wine; accommodates children; excellent vegetarian selection; parking in lot.

The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.

The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.

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