Cirque and Circuits
‘The power station was the site of a fire on April 20, 1964, which caused power failures throughout London including the BBC Television Centre, which was due to launch BBC Two that night…’
I REMEMBER my father telling me about his school trip to Battersea Power Station. It must have been awe-inspiring to see, so close, the quad of chimneystacks send plumes of coal smoke soaring into the sky. The highlight however was the moment when his guide exposed the enormous cables extending deep into the ground, delivering enough megawatts to light up one fifth of London. A bright memory, especially considering that through the abuse of disuse, this lavish Deco creation is rapidly becoming the capital’s splintered equivalent of Brighton’s West Pier…
‘Madame Zingara’ was by most accounts, a vast, venerable warren of a Cape Town restaurant. Established in 2002, a fire ravaged it just four years later, leaving ‘little more than a burnt out shell’. Rising phoenix-like from the ashes, its current incarnation is a 100 year-old mirrored ‘Spiegeltent’.
What possible connection could there be between a disused power factory and a revived restaurant? Earlier this month, the Belgian built pleasure dome landed in London, vibrantly pitched in the shadow of the dark power station, another beloved ‘shell’.
Once allowed past hi-vis. car park sentries, the tent’s garden looked enchanting. A carpeted approach is flanked by bay tree bobbles, tall glowing hearts and an old tin bath transformed into a sofa. Entering the big top’s comparative darkness, I was rendered mute by a groping midget in a monkey suit. Seconds later, the slender hand of a bearded blonde transvestite on roller-skates dispensed a cool, mint granita. I drank deeply.
Seated in the ‘golden circle’, close to the circular stage (bearing in mind that no table, nor booth is further than eight metres from the action) we were instructed to “suspend disbelief”. Sage advice, heeded with more conviction following a bottle or two of Cap Classique chosen from the largest wine list I have ever seen (at least in terms of its physical appearance and font size).
On the menu in the “velvet cathedral”, four courses of fusion with cabaret, contortionists, comedy and burlesque served alongside. Our table’s centrepiece: a barely stealable Barbie in gold lame, skewered into a garland of plastic flowers.
There must have been over 200 diners within the varnish, canvas and stained glass theatre. Many had followed Zingara’s invitation to ‘dress wildly’, although a ‘bijou’ boutique vended boas and tiaras for those who chose to forget this. All meat is halal and pork was in exile – remarkably normal within large-scale events venues.
Before long, doors tied and lights dimmed to power station darkness, the show begun. Heralding, Stella and - innuendos aside - the ‘Three Tonnes’. These mischievous ‘mammas’ represent South Africa’s longest female running cabaret act (and certainly its most ample). By slim contrast, svelte figures, often minimally dressed, oscillated and gyrated. An Asian lady was staggeringly flexible, balancing her whole form on a strengthened flower stem. Despite there being no minimum age limit, be warned, this is a well-intentioned celebration of the flesh.
In the intervals, the lights rose and food arrived. The quality was better than one might expect of a temporary venue, although ‘Flash’ at the Royal Academy (mentioned in the ‘Opinionated About’ survey) proved that taste need not be sacrificed.
A board of antipasti was engaging, especially the little tomato soups. Ravioli was pleasant: fresh puffy parcels of walnut and mushroom tossed in butter. Recommended by our waitress, Jade, who has been with Zingara for two years, the signature main course of chocolate and chilli beef fillet reminded me of two Michelin starred Chef, Raymond Blanc’s encounter with an American ardent on flagrantly disregarding the rules of food:
‘“Chef, there is a pretty unusual request. A guest wants lobster…” he could barely bring himself to finish the sentence, “with chocolate sauce…”’
The decadently inclined dish worked okay, however. Whilst looking like an enthusiastically blow-dried buffon, when compressed, the crisp vermicelli effectively absorbed the rich, lustrous sauce. The beef was tender and the modest crumbled chilli added interest.
At what I thought was the end of the evening, the stars bowed, and the seventeen chefs paraded; a courteous thought to bring back of house to the front. It was not quite the conclusion, however. A D.J. took control, summoning the seated to their feet. I remained in place, sipping silty coffee. The 100 year-old tent shuddered to the sounds of ‘Mamma Mia’, ‘It’s Raining Men’ and then the Goddamn ‘Jitter Bug’. For me dancing is an unforgiveable contortion of the human body. I, avoider of offices, had unintentionally ended up in what felt like someone else’s office party.
Overall, Madame Zingara provided an informal, entertaining evening, bringing South African sunshine (and a little sin) into a gloomy, brownfield postcode. Whilst it was I imagine, less sleek then the single table restaurant meant to crown one of the power station’s chimneys (a lofty proposal never realised by Parkview Developments), once I suspended disbelief, it proved a happy medley.