Archaeologists of the future will be perplexed when excavating Camden Market. At the centre of the scatter of tawdry trinkets from around the world, they’ll unearth a feasting hall lined with Mesopotamian-style carvings – a look dating from Iraq, seventh century BC.
But below the remains of Gilgamesh restaurant, in lower strata, they’ll find signs indicating a later civilisation – that of the Zulu kingdom in southern Africa, early nineteenth century.
Shaka Zulu occupies two huge floors below Gilgamesh, and the team behind it clearly drew inspiration from Gilgamesh in the grandeur of the vision. The murals and carvings alone cost a claimed £2 million, the restaurant £5.5 million.
Everything about Shaka Zulu is as subtle as a vuvuzela. You enter the first basement via a descending escalator, the passage lined with cowrie shells and gaudy carvings. The reception area and upper-level bar has Indian fabric seating, heaps of mismatched African carvings, zebra prints and paintings.
A cacophany of discordant sounds assails you from both the PA system and a band of live African musicians.
To get to the lower floor, where the main dining area and kitchen is, you descend via some more shopping-mall escalators. Clearly these were a challenge for the interior designers, who mirrored their undersides, built a water feature underneath (bone dry) then left some carved statues sitting in what now looks like an abandoned paddling pool.
Everything is overstated, from grand gesture to detail. Huge statues of Zulu figures – 14 metres high – have been pushed into a corner, seemingly surplus to requirements, like the unfinished carvings on Easter Island. The sinks in the men’s loos are crocodile-skin effect.
Despite the spectacle of the interior, a creditable attempt is made to produce real South African dishes. The best dish was a simple 7oz fillet of springbok, the meat of the antelope tender and moist (£24).
Less impressive was the South African national dish, bobotie. This bowl of spicy minced beef was overcooked and consequently dry, the egg-based topping shrinking from the edges of the pie dish. The rice and sambals promised with the dish didn’t materialise, and staff appeared inexperienced and ill trained.
Eating at Shaka Zulu can be expensive, particularly as many of the the South African wines have high mark-ups (more than threefold).
And the service, at least on our visit in the first week, was chaotic. We were kept waiting for ten minutes at reception; were shown to the wrong table then asked to move; had to fetch the menus ourselves; spent an age trying to get the attention of a waiter for the bill; and then the credit card reader didn’t work on five attempts, so we paid cash.
We felt as if we’d just been to feeding time at the zoo.