REVIEW: There’s the beef. Don Armando steakhouse

donarmando_picanha_steak.jpg Somebody told me it was the best steak they’d eaten. They were at Don Armando, a steakhouse with Argentine leanings. Owner Daniel Toledo also runs Il Leone, the Italian eatery nearby. Opening in late 2014, Armando is named in honour of Toledo’s Buenos Aires-born father.

It’s a compactly cosy space. Stairs lead up to a dining area with wooden tables and modern grey decor. The waitress was charming, explaining the meats are all charcoal-grilled, but was stumped by a query about the beef being grain or grassfed. We heard about a 400g rump special, and ordered the 800g ‘picanha’ steak special for two – with a 45-minute waiting time.

Chorizo and empanada starters kept us busy. Made inhouse, Argentinian-style chorizo tasted porky with strong herbs, but no chilli heat. Great with the vinegar zing of herby Argentine chimichurri sauce. Two empanadas held umami beefiness inside undercooked turnovers, instead of the feather-light Argentinian pastries they’re modelled on.

donarmando_wine_list.jpg On to the meat. An impressive hunk arrived, with salad and so-so handcut chips. Brazilians call it picanha, the top of the cow’s rump, served with its charcoal-charred fat-layer crown intact. Ordered medium, well-seasoned beef was sliced at the table. Lean yet mellow, it tasted of something between sirloin and a roast. Delicious dabbed with chimichurri.

A manager said Don Armando uses only Chalmar beef. One of the pricier local grain-fed beef sources, this top-grade meat is from cattle raised in one company’s feedlots.

But Toledo later revealed that only Armando’s rump, sirloin and T-bones are in fact Chalmar. He doesn’t know his butcher’s source of grain-fed beef picanha, but said it’s closer to the Argentinian ‘vacio’ or flank in cut.

The adjacent table called for their bill. Our steak-friendly Neethlingshof Malbec (R195) was empty. A shared flan (crème caramel) added a custardy, singed-sugar-sauce finish to a carnivorous evening.

donarmando_flan.jpg What to eat Charcoal-grilled steaks. Ask about specials not on the menu.

When to go Dinner is cosy in the small upper-level dining area. Have an appetite-whetting drink downstairs.

Who to take A colleague at lunchtime. A partner or friends, at night.

What not to do Expect creative vegetarian options. Order salads, fish or butterflied baby chickens if you must.

What to drink Steak-friendly blends and a good Malbec (Argentine and SA) selection from a small, red-focused list. Corkage R50.

Whatever you do Don’t fill up early. Leave space for meat, and perhaps a shared dessert.

How much? Starters and desserts average at R50. 200g sirloin at R110; 400g at R165. 800g picanha steak (serves two) at R395.

The verdict Add Don Armando to your steakhouse shortlist.

DON ARMANDO, Coburn Road, Green Point. Open Tuesday to Saturday for lunch and dinner. Tel 021-418-1462.

This review appeared in The Times on 8 April 2015.

REVIEW: Prickly fare at a Robertson restaurant

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Unusual but tasty: pecan nut soufflé
On a rare weekend in Robertson, we were after a lunch stop worthy of a detour. Food lovers I asked all pointed to one place. Mo & Rose Wine Bistro, at Soekershof guesthouse, on the Robertson-Ashton road.

Nearly four years ago German Axel Daniel bought Soekershof with his Italian wife Monica. The luxury guesthouse is the couple’s main focus. Daniel, using his hotel management training, also creates a two and three-course bistro menu. Belgians Jeff ‘chef’ van Moffelen and wife Ilse alternate with Daniel in the kitchen.

We were seated at modern, open-air veranda tables, with grand glimpses of the cactus garden established in 1953. I discovered that fact afterwards – our friendly waiter could only talk food.

dsc_0011.jpg Kranskop wooded Chardonnay, and De Wetshof Limelight Pinot Noir, were both R35 a Spiegelau glass. Main courses showed off vibrant colours but interspersed too many strong flavours. Perfect country greens, but confit duck saltiness and dry, smoky duck-breast slices. Peculiar beetroot dumplings contained fried croutons.

The bacon-wrapped pork fillet dish was tender but too intense with its sundried tomato pesto sauce, over a barley and diced veg ‘risotto’.

The best dishes were starters. Homemade ravioli pockets: two with feta and mint; two holding lamb ragu in a light, herby tomato sauce. And a granular, unusual pecan nut soufflé ‘special’. Quietly comforting, its red onion jam not overly sweet.

A smartly dressed Afrikaans family ordered. Dutch tourists chattered. Sadly a shared chocolate fondant partnering pleasant cherry compote lacked a signature bittersweet kick. A kitchen chat revealed the dark Valrhona chocolate hadn’t arrived that week.

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Confit and smoked duck with beetroot dumplings
We loved the local quiver tree, a toothpick cactus from Bolivia and the plump golden barrel cactus from Mexico, cheekily named mother in law’s seat. Effort went into a charmingly presented meal. But on a late summer’s day the garden stole the show.

What to eat Look to the monthly changing menu, which is tweaked around available ingredients.

When to go Sunday lunch – the best time to appreciate the views.

Who to take Your partner, and a couple of friends.

What not to do Get too hung up on the food. Keep in mind this is a guesthouse, occasionally serving diners from elsewhere.

What to drink Affordable, boutique labels from an extensive, mostly Robertson list. Magnums, vintage wines and craft beer also on offer.

Whatever you do don’t miss the Soekershof cactus garden, where some of the oldest cacti in South Africa grow. Take a stroll before dessert.

How much? Two courses at R250. Three courses at R310.

The verdict Go if staying over in Robertson but don’t make a special trip.

MO & ROSE WINE BISTRO, Klaasvoogds West, Robertson. Open for Sunday lunch and dinner Wednesday to Saturday, mid-April until October. Tel 023-626-4134, Mo & Rose

This review appeared in The Times on 1 April 2015.

Cape Town’s five best sausagemakers

I excluded boerewors because it’s a category in itself. Here is where to find the best locally made bangers. Remember with artisan sausages in particular, a higher price usually means less other nonsense goes into them.

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Martin's Cure Deli packs of sausages
Cure Deli. If processed bangers are all you know, Martin Raubenheimer’s artisanal pork sausages will rock your world. Only hormone-free, hand-sourced quality meat with no cost-cutting fillers, bread or preservatives. Made in his parents Bergvliet garage, the range varies from chorizo to Toulouse or sundried tomato. For the incredible, chunky bacon and apple or pear sausages, he cures the bacon first. Price point in April 2015: various pork sausages cost R127 per kg, or a pack of four or five for R45 to R55. Cure Deli Oranjezicht City Farm and Tokai Earth Fair Markets.

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Joostenberg. The Myburgh family are former pig farmers who now buy in top-grade pork and produces tasty, consistent, preservative-free, commercial sausages. Their English sausages are delicate, their Toulouse heavy in garlic salt. Plainer breakfast sausages are moreish. Kameeldoring sausages mix pork, grassfed Joostenberg beef and MSG-free spices. Price point in April 2015: various pork/beef sausages cost R61 to R73 per kg. R304, Stellenbosch. Joostenberg

Ollie’s Fine Meats and Sausages. Formerly trading as Rudi’s Sausages, Willie Viljoen uses personal recipes and spice mixes for his 17 sausage classics. ‘We mince and stuff by hand,’ he says. ‘They’re gluten-free, with no rusks, wheat or bulking agents.’ His range includes Argentine or unsmoked Spanish chorizo. There’s a Toulouse, five Italian sausages, two German and two English sausages. Wild goose, venison and sour fig sausages are seasonal. Price point in April 2015: sausage prices vary but average at R90 per kg. Gordon’s Bay shop, Root 44 Market and Slow Market Willowbridge, Tel 072-556-1701.

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Salvin's yummy cooked lamb and pork sausages
Raith Gourmet. Feeding Cape Town’s German community, Raith produces commercial pork sausages but the deli’s head chef Clara Bubenzer says they meet a German master butcher’s standards. Fried or grilled, the most popular are bratwurst or garlicky bockwurst. Also try textured Thüringer, herby weisswurst or smoked, stubby knackwurst. Kids love fried Nürnbergers. Price point in April 2015: various German sausages cost from R97 to R118 per kg. Constantia and Gardens. Raith

Son-of-a-butcher. Salvin Hirschfield’s dad really was a butcher, and his quality Glen Oakes farm pork, grassfed beef or free-range lamb sausages have only natural ingredients with his spice mixes (no fillers or preservatives). The pork sausages are endorsed by Grass Consumer Food Action – I love the fine-textured bacon, and uber-popular chilli-flecked Italian salsiccia or sweet Spanish-paprika Cuban chorizo pork sausages. Some enjoy the robust, harissa-ish lamb merguez, or Wagyu beef sausages. Price point in April 2015: various sausages cost R85 to R120 per kg. Oranjezicht Farm Market and Neighbourgoods Market. Tel 082-307-9985.

A version of this appeared in The Times on 1 April 2015.

Cape Town’s five best spots for cooked chips

mchips.jpg Some consider crispy to be the only true test of cooked chips. But slap chips also have their place.

Clarke’s Bar & Dining Room. Chef-owner Lyndall Maunder says good fries look different: ‘They’re perky and hold their shape.’ Clarke’s chips are double-cooked: blanched in oil initially, then fried to order in very hot oil. Potatoes, skins on, are sliced in a machine operated by hand, on site. Order magnificent fries on the side (R10) or regular fries with homemade aioli (R40). Cheese fries (R55) are practically a meal: a basket of crispy fries under tomato ragu, with homemade ‘Melrose-like’ gooey sauce that imitates America’s cheese whizz concept, finished under the grill. Bree Street, Cape Town. 021-424-7648.

Lusitania Fisheries. Some consider crispy to be the only true chip test. But slap chips have their place, indicated by queues inside this second-generation family business. Potatoes are put through a machine slicer here daily, and fried once in clean oil, creating properly cooked, no-frills slap chips (R15 to R65 for extra large). Request extra vinegar and salt before they’re paper-wrapped. Waterkant Street, Cape Town. 021-425-4532.

Mondiall Burger Bar. Most people go for their burgers, but R28 French fries doused with truffle oil and grated Parmesan are worthy of a special visit. Sold from Mondiall’s take-away hatch, potatoes are machine-sliced on site. Like their truffle counterparts, plain skinny fries (R20) are crispy, thin and double-fried. Alfred Mall, V&A Waterfront. Tel 021-418-3003.

lusitania.jpg Societi Bistro. I love it when chefs talk potato. ‘We go for the Van der Plank variety if we can,’ says Stephan Marais. ‘Ours are fatter, peeled fries, cut by hand so they’re not uniform.’ Double-fried until crisp, a R20 side order includes homemade mayonnaise. Orange Street, Cape Town. 021-424-2100. Find these also at The Brasserie, Tokai.

The Company’s Garden Restaurant. Perfect, rustic chips: order as a menu side order, or devour a bowl for R30. Starchy Avalanche potatoes are machine-sliced here; skins stay on. ‘We cook for three or four minutes to set the outside. The second time briefly at higher temperatures, so the inside gets crispy and golden,’ says chef Jody Carolus. Queen Victoria Street, Cape Town. 021-423-2919. Find these also at Café Manhattan, Sidewalk Café and Café Mozart.

Late addition: Bertus Basson at Spice Route. This missed the print deadline, but I have it on good authority that the chips served at this Paarl Winelands restaurant are worth a special mention. Twice-cooked, freshly cut with skins on, dusted with braai spice and Parmesan.

A version of this appeared in The Times on 25 March 2015.

Cape Town’s five best cheese shops

Try my list when next looking for great local or imported cheese:

Aroundcheese. Aside from her Waterfront stand, Jane Selander sells artisan cheeses at four local markets. ‘Instead of supplying delis, I sell to the public. People can buy only what they need,’ she says. Find only naturally produced South African cheese from artisanal farmers, including a tangy Grana or Montagu cheddar (Selander says locals generally enjoy stronger cheese). The Karoo Swiss, Blue or Crumble appeals particularly to foreigners. Sat at Oranjezicht City Farm Market, Neighbourgoods Market and Oude Libertas in Stellenbosch. Thurs at Earth Fair Market, daily at V&A Waterfront’s Market on the Wharf

Giovanni’s Deli World. Operating since 1989, Nicholas and Giovanni Esposito airfreight quality cheese from Europe. You’ll pay a little extra but Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano is cut from the wheel, or pear-shaped Provolone is sliced into chunks. Also find Spain’s sheep’s milk Manchego, Danish Esrom, Greek goat-and-sheep feta, Dutch (young and old Gouda, Boerenkaas, Leiden, Gouda with mustard) and French signatures, plus Swiss Appenzeller. Main Road, Green Point. 021-434-6893.

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Cheese from Gay's Guernsey Dairy in Prince Albert
Fromages de France. Selling from her husband’s charming wine shop, Lodine Maske’s passion for French cheese knows no limits. She supplies French embassies in a few Southern African countries. Naturally she’ll also offer cheese and wine pairing tips (South African or French bottles, take your pick). Maske supports family-run producers, so find three different Munsters, four Epoisses (three hand-moulded), seasonal Vacherin Mont d’Or from the Alps, or Ossau-Iraty sheep’s milk cheese made up in the Pyrénées. Main Road, Franschhoek. La Cotte

La Crémerie Shop. Suzanne Himely’s childhood stints with her French grandmother rubbed off. Initially selling French wine and goodies at markets, she now mans a shop stocked with wonderful products, cheese and wine. “I probably have 10 different cheese regions and 20 styles,” she says. Find genuine Roquefort, Morbier from Jura and little-known Tomme Noire des Pyrénées. There’s also Reblochon from Savoie, and Cantal from Auvergne, an ancient cheese predating Roman times. Gardens Centre, Cape Town. The French Market

The Real Cheese. Valerie Elder has talked cheese and supplied it to delis and restaurants for 20 years. This retail outlet of Get Stuffed Enterprises showcases producers from every province for cheese-loving consumers. Taste and learn from her extensive knowledge, while being tempted from the vast display, including award-winning Pecorino-style goat’s milk Grison, a Free State seasonal Ficksburger washed rind, or Chrissi’s unusual Natal beetroot. Lower Main Road, Observatory. Get Stuffed

A version of this appeared in The Times on 11 March 2015.

Cape Town’s five best pancake places

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Thomas Le Clech: ‘The traditional way is to mix the batter by hand.
Birds Cafe. Two pan-flipped pancakes are made to order here at breakfast, lunch or teatime. Quality fillings include cinnamon sugar, or proper maple syrup with homemade bacon. After sampling a creamy 70% Lindt chocolate-and-Nutella pancake, I recommend sharing – one pancake was sufficiently filling. Bree Street, Cape Town. 021-426-2534.

For the Love of Yummyness. At counter seats at the V&A Market On the Wharf, pancakes are made to order daily. Henrij Twigge’s team serves the same menu at the Crêperie de Bonneterie stall at Woodstock’s Neighbourgoods Market. Adjusting the recipe to local tastes, his sugar-free crêpes use nuttywheat flour, formed into rectangles over creative sweet and savoury fillings. Market on the wharf

La Rozell. Breton Thomas Le Clech is a French lecturer during the week, and people queue for his traditional sweet crêpes on Saturdays. ‘My mother was a crêpe maker too,’ he explains. ‘I make crêpe on the billig, scraping it with a wooden rozell.’ On the savoury side, Le Clech makes the only buckwheat galettes in town – try his ‘full house’ galette of cracked egg, cheddar and Parma ham; with tomato and rocket topping. Oranjezicht City Farm Market. 079-700-1274.

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A half-portion Birds Cafe chocolate pancake
The Famous Pancake House. These signature Dutch fluffy, soufflé-style sweet and savoury pancakes were much loved in the nineties. Wilma Botha and daughter Odette recently resurrected the family business, and now co-own this popular tourist eatery. Although pricier, they have a following for pancakes crammed with banana in Muscadel, or chicken livers in cream sauce. Huguenot Street, Franschhoek. 021-876-4788.

The Wicked Waffle. Belgian Gino Adriaensen started producing traditional waffles in Knysna, and crêpes were a natural progression. His mixture includes peanut oil for earthiness, but otherwise it’s the same recipe used by the French and South Africans. Sweet fillings include cinnamon sugar, Belgian milk chocolate, fruit, cream and Nutella. Bay Harbour Market (Fri night, Sat and Sun), Hout Bay. 082-674-0182, The Wicked Waffle.

This appeared in The Times on 4 March 2015.

Cape Town’s five best artisanal bakeries

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Quality loaves from C'est La Vie
Plenty of bakeries sell loaves and rolls, but only a few use slow, natural artisanal processes worth seeking out.

C’est La Vie. Jo Hill’s excellent artisan breads deserve wider recognition. Trained in France, Hill uses only stoneground flour, water, salt and a well-tended starter for her sourdough wholewheat, rye and Campagne loaves. Beautiful baguettes and rustiques feature too. ‘Our breads take 18 hours from start to finish,’ says Hill. ‘That makes them artisanal.’ Kalk Bay, 083-676-7430.

De Oude Bank Bakkerij. It’s worth the drive to Fritz Schoon’s rustic bakery where integrity shines in every wood-fired loaf made from a farmer’s stoneground flour. Baguettes and ciabattas aside, all breads use a five-year-old sourdough starter. From the Schoon’s sourdough white-wholegrain-rye, to ancient grain loaves such as sprouted buckwheat sourdough, naturally fermented bread reigns. Stellenbosch CBD, 021-883-2187.

Eurohaus. While not professing artisan techniques reliant on slow, natural fermentations, this bakery has a steady following, especially on Sundays. Gerd Zerban, 72, still begins his work day at 2am. Known for Zerban’s Cake and Coffee Shop in its heyday, his three crusty sourdough rye variants combine yeast, water and a pre-starter with German rye flour. Half loaves available. Cape Town CBD, 021-422-0168.

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Jason's Bree Street Sourdough
Jason Bakery. You’ll queue to snag a loaf from the hatch, but charred sourdoughs or crusty baguettes are worth the wait. Jason Lilley feeds his white bread sourdough and sourdough rye starters ‘born’ in August 2007. The latter gives the signature Bree Street sourdough distinctive flavour, combined with white bread and rye stoneground flour, salt and water. It takes three days to make. Cape Town CBD, 021-424-5644.

Woodstock Bakery. Most people buy these artisan loaves from Oranjezicht City Farm or Neighbourgoods Market Saturday stalls, but they sell from their synagogue-turned-bakery too. Paul Cremer hand-shapes breads using sourdough starters and stoneground flour. Expect wood-fired crusts on roasted potato to assorted sourdough ryes, ciabattas and baguettes. ‘We use a minimum 18-hour fermentation, so the bread is easier to digest,’ says Cremer. Woodstock, 074-797-7324.

This appeared in The Times on 25 February 2015.

Cape Town’s five best butchers

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The Butcher Man's Mick Donnelly, a butcher for 55 years

Customers tired of soulless supermarkets are opting for neighbourhood butchers who mince or trim to order, offer cooking inspiration and advice. This list highlights Cape Town butcheries. But also try Paarl’s Ryan Boon or Nice to Meat You in Stellenbosch.

City Bowl and vicinity:
Frankie Fenner Meat Merchants. Shop here for humanely treated free-range, grass-fed Greenfields or Elgin beef of varying hang times. Naturally you’ll pay more. Acorn-fed Elgin pork fills bangers and Toulouse sausage (free of gluten, sugar, fillers and MSG). Staff advise on cooking and push peasant cuts. Buy free-range chickens, beef shin, marrow bones and flat-iron steak to flanks in different thicknesses.
Price point in Feb 2015: Grass-fed, free-range beef sirloin (either Elgin or Greenfields) costs R215 per kg and rump costs R190 per kg; whole fillet costs R275 per kg.
Cape Town, 021-424-7204.

butchers_1.jpg Bill Riley. They supply hip restaurants, but there’s no flashiness about the neighbourhood or service at this third-generation family-owned wholesaler’s retail shop. Find grain-fed rump or Greenfields grass-fed sirloin, all-beef patties from the forequarter, or pork-and-beef boerewors to a family recipe. Regulars travel from Picketberg for quality at exceptional prices.
Price point in Feb 2015: Greenfields grass-fed beef sirloin or rump steaks costs R156kg per kg; grass-fed whole fillet sells at R205 per kg. Grain-fed beef sirloin or rump steaks costs R112 per kg. A whole grain-fed beef fillet costs R198 per kg.
Brooklyn, 021-511-5522.

Atlantic Seaboard:
The Butcher Man. Comparatively prices are steep, whether you’re after Chalmar beef sirloin, rack of lamb or black pudding. But it’s worth a stop for variety, convenience and a master butcher’s expertise – four types of patties alone range from boerewors using cooked brisket, to Free State Wagyu beef. You can eat in too. Regulars queue for hot salt-pickled beef on rye.
Price point in Feb 2015: Chalmar beef sirloin, rump or T-bone steaks cost R280 per kg. Lamb chump, cutlets or loins cost R200 per kg.
Green Point, 021-434-1111.

Southern suburbs:
Super Meat Market. Regulars drive for oxtail (and cooking tips) or unusual cuts including thick butterflied rump for the braai. This 50-year-old business run by butchers Stuart Bass and Peter Logue offers old-school service alongside hung Namibian beef and Karoo lamb from preferred suppliers. Sausages are free of MSG and fillers, and chickens are free-range.
Price point in Feb 2015: Beef sirloin or rump (hung for three weeks) costs R168 per kg, whole fillet costs R298 per kg, already trimmed.
Kenilworth, 021-797-5595.

boerandbutcher.jpg Northern suburbs:
Boer & Butcher. Edu Hanekom farms between Darling and Hopefield, supplying his small butchery with free-range beef, lamb and pork free of antibiotics or stimulants. ‘I’m in a position to provide details about where and how it was reared,’ he says. Try dry-aged, free-range, grass-fed sirloin, or grass-fed, free-range smoked lamb ribs. Grain-fed beef is bought in (it’s often grass-fed and only finished with grain). There are 17 boerewors variations. With extremely decent prices and personal service, customers include hungry current and former Springbok rugby players.
Price point in Feb 2015: Bought-in grass-fed beef finished with grain is what they call ‘regular’ sirloin at R114.99 per kg. The boer’s own (or farms in the region) dry-aged grass-fed beef sirloin costs R144.99 per kg. His rump is priced the same. A whole grass-fed beef fillet is R169 per kg.
Durbanville, 021-976-8627.

A version of this appeared in The Times on 18 February 2015.

REVIEW: one country restaurant that goes the distance

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The Place: Are you also feeling irritable after too many holiday meals where the food was poor and the wait was long? I spent good money in steakhouses eating gristly burgers and cardboard-like chips; endured family restaurants drizzling melted margarine over my fish without prior warning. Winery lunches with portions so tiny we all left hungry. I was after food for the soul.

I’d called The Restaurant at Newton Johnson before Christmas and snagged the first available table in early January – at 2pm. Seasonal demand for two lunch sittings then. After achieving ninth place in Eat Out’s Top 10 within 14 months of opening in touristy Hermanus, could they deliver?

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We arrived to a fast-filling restaurant with beige walls and an open kitchen at one end. Country scenery was the obvious drawcard, large windows and a wind-swept deck showcasing Hemel-en-Aarde vineyard, tree and mountain panoramas. Tiled floors made for poor acoustics, but the holiday mood worked its tricks. Shorts didn’t seem out of place amongst the chatting groups.

The Food: A single-page menu listed 12 dishes, diners choosing between two courses (R240) to six courses (R480). Our three-courser (R310 per person) worked out just right. Some observations. Chef-proprietor Eric Bullpitt was moulded under Stellenbosch restaurateur George Jardine, and like his mentor, Bullpitt is a master with vegetables.

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Take the turnips. I mostly avoid them. But Bullpitt’s lightly pickled turnip slivers stole the show alongside coarse beef tartare. And in a later dish, carrot puree sweetness and kale bitterness cleverly cemented salty-soft pork belly under stand-to-attention crackling, with a garlic-ginger sauce.

I loved the novelty of spice-cured fresh mackerel too, caught as a by-catch in local waters. This fishy starter’s delicate cucumber ‘froths’ liquefied too fast, but with perky cucumber ribbons, crispy onion and citrusy-soy Ponzu dressing it tasted grand.

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Foraged dune lettuce and other unusual greens
Who would guess artichoke-miso puree added a base note to an excellent hake dish? On the same fish, our waiter identified foraged dune lettuces, worm-shaped samphire greens and goosefoot, all scrounged from the countryside or beach (he had collected some of it).

But the basil meringue dessert was the game-changer. Tasting weirdly masculine, it combined savoury basil oils together with sweet, wobbly, unset meringue balls ‘branded’ with the bitter char markings of hot charcoal. Bullpitt said he’d borrowed the charring idea. It was what he did with it that counted.

The Rest: Family-owned Newton-Johnson winery operates alongside Bullpitt’s restaurant. They’re making some of the Cape’s best wines, a plethora of Platter five stars falling on their Pinot Noirs. The whites aren’t shabby either. With small mark-ups, we drank the very seafood-friendly Resonance white blend (R158), and a glass of lighter, second-label Felicité Pinot Noir (R40).

nj_1.jpg The Verdict? Bullpitt used old-fashioned smoking, pickling and open-fire cooking, and his clean plates were appealing to the eye. His knack was purity of flavours, layering of textures and delivering a sophisticated rural take on what sounded like a straightforward plate of meat or vegetables. His waiting team understood his menu and served it swiftly – weak coffee was the only sore point.

You’ll pay good money to dine on repurposed wine-barrel tables at this upmarket restaurant. But I say eat out less often, find a good reason to splurge and then take a drive and make it count.

THE RESTAURANT AT NEWTON JOHNSON, Newton Johnson Winery, Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, Hermanus. Open Tues to Sun for lunch, Friday to Saturday for dinner. Tel 021-200-2148, Newton Johnson

A version of this review appeared in The Times on 28 January 2015.

REVIEW: Vegan delights? Give Plant a chance

plant_2.jpg There’s a new vegan café-restaurant in town, and it’s attracting a steady troop of diners avoiding animal products, and those keen on healthier breakfasts or suppers.

Engineer Adien Aggenbach opened Plant as a tiny café early in 2014, but in December moved to its current, bigger Loop Street corner space. The entirely plant-based menu includes many raw food items.

Aggenbach’s partner Jacqueline Lahoud also introduced craft beer and a decent vegan wine list (Yes there is such a thing. Vegan wines means animal products such as egg whites aren’t used in the production). Labels include Vondeling, Reyneke and Springfield.

plant.jpg At lunch with a vegetarian visitor, a waitress showed off fermented-in-soya tempeh “bacon” and smeary vegan “cheese” based on soya, coconut oil and miso, all made in-house. I thought the vegetarian would be an easy sell, but neither of us were convinced.

plant_wraps.jpg A toddler’s parents tucked into a tortilla and black bean quesadilla as we sipped wholesome red and yellow fruit juices (R32), colour-coded ingredients juiced on site. Bare wood tables, crates fashioned into display shelves, and vertical garden walls added to Plant’s organic feel.

We shared three lunch dishes and liked elements in all. I quite enjoyed chewy tempeh “bacon” in our protein salad (R59), its smokiness giving bland quinoa, chickpeas, sundried tomatoes, nuts, seeds and greens flavour direction.

plant_brownie.jpg The vegetarian preferred the vish burger (R55), a bun topped with salad, homemade “tartar sauce” with raw onion, and tastily textured patties of nori-encrusted potato flakes. Carb-heavy but different.

Two rice wraps stuffed with mushrooms (R63), avo, cashews, soba noodles and pickled ginger hits were tasty, if lacking without their salty Asian dipping sauce.

“There’s so much wholesome, raw food here, I feel too virtuous to order alcohol,” declared the vegetarian, stabbing carrot and cabbage in his spicy peanut quinoa side salad.

Fortunately a gluten-free brownie (R28) provided bittersweet relief. Crumbling under a silky cacao topping and walnuts, it tasted jolly good for a chocolate imposter.

PLANT, Corner of Buiten and Loop Streets, Cape Town. Open Monday to Saturday and Wed to Sat for dinner. Tel 021-422-2737, Plant

A version of this review appeared in The Times on 7 January 2015.

REVIEW: Vibrant and fresh: The Company’s Garden restaurant for breakfast, tea or lunch

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The Place: The Company’s Gardens is a green space where adults sit and reflect under very old oaks, children startle birds settling around sundials, and squirrels beg for nuts from passers-by admiring colourful shrubs. For years Cape Town’s central garden lacked a decent café. A week ago that changed.

The Madame Zingara group is behind the new The Company’s Garden restaurant. They started off calling it Haarlem & Hope, which I thought a catchy name cleverly promoting Cape Town’s historical roots. Dutch ship die Nieuwe Haarlem was wrecked in Table Bay in 1647, its crew waiting a year for a lift. Their gardening efforts inspired Jan van Riebeeck to return five years later and create the Company’s Garden to grow produce. However the restaurant hastily changed its name after a few Capetonians decided it was associated with a colonialist slavery past. Shall we do away with the recreated VOC veggie and fruit garden in the Company’s Gardens too?

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The Company’s Garden numerous shady tables were packed during Sunday lunch. Local designers have contributed to understated furniture and a clean interior: wood-framed seventies-style glass now opens out from the bar counter to overlook Porky Heffer’s hanging nests, carved frogs and child-friendly logs. A giant chess game happens nearby.

The Food: Chef Linda Beuken’s modern, attractively presented café food has Cape Dutch elements here and there. This is feel-good daytime fare, from French toast and omelettes to toasted sandwiches and a selection of cakes. How nice to see scones on offer in a garden venue.

With two glasses of Buiten Blanc (R39), we shared a West Coast mussel pot (R60) in a deliciously unusual wine, lemon juice and creamy sauce, mussels plump with flavour, parsley and a secret twist.

The lunch menu has hearty salads to Karoo lamb chops, but fish and chips (R60) in tasty beer-battered hake made for better summer fare. Perfect golden-brown handcut chips are a good reason to return.

The beef burger looked delicious. Instead we enjoyed Cape Malay elements in a Dhaltjie burger (R65), combining grilled brown mushroom under melted mozzarella, cucumber raita and fresh tomato-coriander salsa zing. But deep-fried dhaltjie balls tasted too much of turmeric for the flavours to all fit together.

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Two children at our table declared their lunch very good. An excellently charred ‘big boy, little kid’ burger (R40) had melted mozzarella and tomato on a toasted sesame bun, and more lovely chips. ‘Fish fingers and fries’ (R38) were actually battered hake strips. Thick milkshakes (R28) were just fine, and full of sprinkles and marshmallows.

The drinks: The wine list is small but sufficient, mostly a mix of uncomplicated Sauvignons, Merlots and blends, plus a few creative labels. Artful garden-facing bar stools looked just right for ordering a craft beer or late-afternoon cocktail.

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The Verdict? The Company’s Garden restaurant was created despite the city’s complicated tendering process, and Zingara founder Richard Griffin wants to use it to change the way South Africans think about red-tape environments. He also wants it to be inclusive of many sectors of the community. I’m not sure the café’s pricing is affordable enough for that, but its extensive menu already caters to a mixed bag of diners.

Order a quality coffee or eat a meal, and mingle with young couples, tourists and families out for lunch, or groups of bridge-playing ladies in floral dresses. Go to The Company’s Garden Restaurant to recreate the nostalgia of Cape Town’s historic green lung – you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to enjoy yourself.

THE COMPANY’S GARDEN RESTAURANT, Company’s Gardens, Queen Victoria Road, Cape Town. Open daily from 7am to 6pm. Tel 021-423-2919, The Company’s Garden Reservations only for six people or more.

A version of this review appeared in The Times on 3 December 2014.

REVIEW: Blue Cafe is all about the neighbourhood

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The Place: Sometimes you meet somebody instantly likeable. You can’t always put your finger on why, but generally charm, good intentions and receptiveness makes you excuse their shortcomings and focus on their possibilities. Visiting The Blue Café in Tamboerskloof is a little like that.

Jeanne and Murray van Hirschberg bought an existing suburban café-deli with an attached house. They’re in business with Jeanne’s mother Lynda Loubser, who oversees the cooking and bakes up a storm. They all live around the corner, although Murray and Jeanne’s involvement in other businesses makes them less visible. ‘We open the café in the morning and close at night,’ says Murray.

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Neighbourliness is what it’s about here. Seated separately at pavement tables with a hedge behind and views of lovely Victorian homes, I’ve discussed live music venues with a female music promoter, and chatted over breakfast to a work-from-home guy from the next street.

The Food: This tiny deli opened at the beginning of November, and serves breakfasts to light suppers, and tea in between. They’re trying to catch their breath, yet customers keep wandering in. The narrow chalkboard menu will be expanded soon.

For now breakfast is fruit salad, homemade granola and yoghurt, or bought-in pastries. This seems like a boiled-egg-and-soldiers sort of place, yet the only advertised cooked option is Paul Daly’s Full Monty (R48), in honour of the previous owner. Croissant (or ciabatta toast) plus scrambled egg heavy with mozzarella and parsley, also had bacon, mushrooms, sliced tomatoes and avocado – tasty but surely overkill? Later, I learnt that a Baby Monty (R28) is also possible.

b3.jpg Tea is Murray’s loose-leaf Enmasse blends brewed in glass pots, while coffee is a dark Italian bean or locally roasted Truth brew. All well made. Lynda’s daily bakes are well worth a detour. Lunch and supper is sandwiches or rolls (Knead ciabatta is for sale), two creative salads, or cheese and meat platters.

I’m glad I returned to lunch on wonderful Dutch meatballs (R45). Two tender beef rounds clasping onion and parsley, in a comfortingly rich broth, with ciabatta toast for mopping up. Simplicity itself. Blue Cafe also does a six-cheese macaroni based on Jeanne’s grandmother’s recipe. An unused pizza oven will soon be reinstated.

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The Rest: This deli’s shelves brim with oils and edible goodies to take home. They include attractively packaged toffees, almond bars, Stanford honey, fudge and savoury snacks. In the chilled section you’ll find Nice ice-cream, Camphill farm yoghurt or frozen homemade chicken pies. Jeanne is a product developer of edible treats who cut her teeth working for Melissa’s. She also creates the ceramic plates and ovals scribbled with witty sayings, used in Blue Café.

The Verdict? If you’re expecting massive food variety, a wine list and snappy service you’ll be disappointed (I’ve heard that people craving a sundowner ask for olives, but that’s probably just neighbourhood gossip). Smallness, creative quirkiness and a sense of community give this cafe street cred. Its owners are moving towards general dealers’ days where goods were bartered and regulars kept accounts. So green-fingered locals are encouraged to exchange home-grown produce in exchange for shop credit. Neighbourhood kids are already bartering basil leaves.

THE BLUE CAFE, 13 Brownlow Road, Tamboerskloof. Open weekdays from 7.30am to 10pm, weekends from 8am – 10pm. Tel 021-426-0250, Blue Cafe

This review appeared in The Times on 26 November 2014.

FOODSTUFF: Q&A with Annemarie Steenkamp on Bree Street’s Bocca

bocca_int.jpg What’s Bocca about? Good food, a fast pace and vibe. Sitting close to a neighbouring table, or alongside other diners at upstairs counters. The idea is to show up, order drinks, a couple of nibbles or pizza, and then move on.

The food? Small bites are listed under ‘spoons’, ‘fingers’ or ‘knives and forks’, each dish with only two or three components. Plus our Neapolitan tomato-base or white pizzas, which people know from Burrata restaurant.

Guilty pleasure? Milo with cold milk.

Current obsession? Our bull terrier puppy Juisseppi. A guy called Guisseppe booked her, but later took a male puppy. Nick (my partner) and I said it was meant to be. She’s eaten one shoe so far.

Bocca’s décor? Filled with light and quite masculine. Wooden benches and panelling, and a mezzanine level with counters and booths.

Hotel or camping? Hotel. When I was five or six my dad took us camping. Apparently I asked if we’d run out of money and couldn’t afford our house.

Memorable overseas restaurant? The Ledbury in London. In South Africa there’s a similarity to the menus. Overseas, ingredients are just treated differently.

A travel experience gone wrong? After matric I flew to England, but my bags didn’t arrive with me. I went to the Lake District on the Scottish border and started in housekeeping. For a week I had only the clothes I flew in. A bag eventually arrived that wasn’t mine.

coffee.jpg How do you take your coffee? Black, and a lot of it. Often three cups by midday.

What’s hot in food? Restaurants doing something specific. Menus for everyone are falling away.

What don’t people know about you? I like playing Tetris on my phone. You can zone out fitting blocks into spaces.

BOCCA, 51 Wale Street, Cape Town. Tel 021-422-0188, Bocca. Open for lunch and dinner on Monday to Saturday.

A shortened variation of this appeared in The Times on 5 November 2014.

FOODSTUFF: Different dining at Makaron’s kitchen table for two

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At a chef’s table, instead of sitting in a stylish restaurant with décor and views, people pay good money to join a small group dining, surrounded by working chefs inside a frenetic kitchen in full service. It’s usually a windowless, functional space with gaudy fluorescent lighting in the bowels of a building.

The ‘kitchen table’ experience at Makaron restaurant is a stylish deviation. We’re the only two diners in the cold kitchen section, a window behind our subtly lit marble table offering a peep into the adjacent restaurant. There are cookbooks to page through and metro tiles in multiple grey tones liven the walls.

We’re closest to three chefs prepping salads and desserts on state-of-the-art work stations; their slide-out draws containing climate-controlled ingredients. ‘We do an intimate experience. We call it dinner and a show,’ explains head chef Tanja Kruger, popping over from the pass. ‘They say chefs are quite anti-social, but mine love having people in here and sharing what they do.’

Sommelier Esmé Groenewald introduces the liquid entertainment. She’s chatty about all sorts, but her pet subject is undiscovered wine labels such as Chenin-blend Sijnn White.

We enjoy impressive food moments, such as the ancient grains starter, where quinoa and couscous combine in a heart shape with tiny amaranth seeds (Wikipedia claims amaranth was a staple food of the Aztecs). Raw carrots and pea shoots resemble a tiny floral arrangement, with the silkiest pool of cream-laced cauliflower soup poured inside.

Five courses arrive at a steady pace, but it feels more dinner party than restaurant. Although kitchen staff probably do notice whether you’re emptying every plate, there’s no sense of being observed.

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A seared tuna dish is marinated in red miso, and then combined with slivers of raw, bitter radish. There’s smoked tofu and textured crunch from crumbled Asian dragon crackers, savoury seeds and chillies. Thelema Riesling reigns in the dish with panache.

‘I went to Spain this year to walk the Camino and find my balance,’ says Kruger during a kitchen lull. ‘To me there’s nothing more balanced than Asia’s umami sweet and salty flavours.’

On previous visits to Makaron I found Kruger’s style overly fussy and full of show. Now it’s calmer: there’s flavour purity and confidence in simpler combinations. ‘I used to work my crew too hard,’ admits Kruger. ‘This year I promised myself we’d do our thing and what we were comfortable with. It’s working for us.’

There is sudden kitchen tension and lowered voices. A vegan table of four has arrived at Makaron without a reservation. Knocking together restaurant-worthy dishes without eggs, cream or butter is no easy task. There’s visible relief 10 minutes later: the table ordered only two courses.

Makaron’s kitchen table has quirky touches too. Completing the meal, a vintage Guerlain make-up box is filled with crushed ice and homemade ice-cream wafer sandwiches. Bored with macarons and petit fours, the team takes turns nominating ice-cream flavours (they’ve made bacon to carrot cake). Our batch includes melon, biscotti and apple, but the ginger beer ice-cream wafer steals the show.

A junior chef snaps two Polaroids. One is stuck on the kitchen pillar. We’re given the other as a memento of a diverting evening.

MAKARON RESTAURANT, Majeka House, Houtkapper Street, Stellenbosch. Tel 021-880-1512 or Majeka. Kitchen Table dinners are R590 per person for five courses, or R900 inclusive of wine.

This appeared in The Times on 5 November 2014.

WINE: Q&A with self-taught Pieter de Waal on infidels and making freaky-geeky wine

flying-pigs.jpg Are you a garagiste? With Hermit on the Hill I started off as a garagiste, moved away from it, and I’m now scaling down on volumes again. Future Hermit on the Hill labels will be focused on freaky and geeky wines.

Where do you make wine? Hermit on the Hill is made in proper cellars, and I supply restaurants and wine shops. But I’ve made experimental wines in my garage and in my house. My dining room has five barrels of hobby wines next to the couch: two Shiraz, two Gamay Noir and a small barrel of Portuguese Bastardo.

What don’t people know about you? I own a 1967 Birmingham Small Arms Thunderbolt motorbike. It’s red, with pannier boxes on the side. I bought it 21 years ago.

Hermit on the Hill Infidel 2012 broke the mould when it ranked in this year’s Sauvignon Blanc Top 10 competition. Is that a big deal? Yes, it’s called The Infidel because it breaks Sauvignon Blanc winemaking rules. It tastes different because it’s made differently: the juice is exposed to air, it’s fermented with no added yeast, and spends 10 months in old barrels. I’ve only made the Infidel twice and don’t expect to make it again – the vineyard was pulled up.

Infidel.jpg Are competitions important? They’re there because consumers want to see stars and medals. The Sauvignon Blanc Top 10 2014 was the first competition I’ve entered – I wanted to show there’s space for different styles.

Memorable travel situation? I missed a flight from London to Marseille due to an accident delay on my way to the airport. I rebooked my flight and went to dinner with friends. The evening ended with a great bottle of grappa – the next morning I missed the flight again. I had to drive four hours to the only airport with a flight out that day. The rebooking charges were more than I paid for the original ticket.

What’s the deal with the Infidel label? When I married Laura, my old friend Conrad designed the label as a wedding gift. I have an honours in economics and an MBA, so the ‘pigs might fly’ is about me becoming a winemaker. There’s a slave bell because I’m not a slave to tradition. There’s a Monty Python pram because I’m a fan, and because I married at 41 and we had a child.

Your hidden talent? I once auctioned off a roll of toilet paper for R8000 and a box containing absolutely nothing for R15000. It was for charity.

See Hermit On the Hill.

FOODSTUFF: Greenhouse’s Ashley Moss making his mark

the_greenhouse_24.jpg First appearances can be misleading. A pristine white tablecloth in a conservatory restaurant suggests a formal mood and stiff dinner service. Similarly, a head chef whose entire left arm is tattooed with stars, aliens and planets comes across as anti-establishment to some. I’m sure Ashley Moss has raised eyebrows greeting mature guests in a short-sleeved chef’s jacket at The Greenhouse restaurant. We are talking the flagship eatery of Cellars-Hohenort hotel in well-to-do Constantia.

This kitchen team is shaking up The Greenhouse – during the eight-course menu, chefs serve a dish and chat with guests. Moss is doing the same. But his is no rebellion, rather stamping his culinary identity gradually. ‘I have no problem with people wearing T-shirts if they’re there for the food. But there’s definitely a market for people dressing for dinner and after good linen,’ he says.

‘We’re seeing more younger diners though. Now we’re trying to break the mould with our table set up.’ It’s a small detail, but a knife and fork lie together at an angle in the top right near the wine glass, instead of on either side of the plate.

Moss seems older than 28, and his food reflects this maturity. Recently married, he joined The Greenhouse as head chef in July, after positions in serious UK restaurants. He proved his worth on a previous four-year Greenhouse stint, departing in 2011 as sous chef.

This nature-lover is a fit, early riser who cycles 30km before work. En route he fills plastic bags with foraged wild dune spinach on the False Bay coast. It’s used in a tempura dune spinach snack, dipped in Asian dashi with smoked snoek.

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‘I did a bit of foraging in England but here it’s a practical thing,’ says Moss. ‘We’re hesitant of spending on micro-herbs or whatever else is “trending” at The Greenhouse – we’d rather use what we find. But our number one priority is deliciousness.’

The five-course spring menu (R550) features sashimi with farmed abalone, seaweed and kelp. ‘I waded into the Atlantic for the kelp, which we cook,’ says Moss. ‘The sea lettuce just had to be rinsed.’

He’d be stupid to ignore the magnificent produce from the hotel’s vegetable gardens. The gardener consults the kitchen before planting. So a few courses into the spring menu, you’ll eat an earthy quail and wild leek dish that skids to a halt with sweetly acidic raw guava puree zing. the_greenhouse_013.jpg

It was Moss’s idea to combine guavas and macadamias, but he struggled with its pairing. ‘Then the wild leeks came out in our garden. It’s such a strong flavour we use it with milder regular leeks,’ he says.

If you’re splurging on the eight-course menu (R850), an African theme is introduced early on with tapas snacks. So local gemsbok on a slab of salt partners fermented waterblommetjies. A carved bowl holds indigenous madumbi potato ‘chips’ alongside the tastiest mushroom crème brulee you’ll eat.

‘I have a lot of work planned before the end of the year. I’ll go Japanese,’ says Moss. ‘I’ve had it on the cards for six years. It’s not something you jump into.’ This time he’s not discussing food but the next set of tattoos.

THE GREENHOUSE, The Cellars-Hohenort, 93 Brommersvlei Road, Constantia. Tel 021-794-2137, Collection Mcgrath

This appeared in The Times on 8 October 2014.

FOODSTUFF: Q&A with Karen Dudley on The Dining Room

karen_dudley.jpg Why the Dining Room? The Kitchen (next door) is a busy, wonderful, small space, all about variety and sunshiny-ness. What it isn’t: a place to linger and have a conversation. The Dining Room is where you engage at a table. I’m making old-fashioned dining table glamorous again.

The Dining Room’s décor? I would call it tongue and cheek nostalgia.

What should we expect? People at their tables, having a classic dining experience. Our food is delicious and they don’t have to think about what to have. They’ll be served a plate of meat, fish or vegetarian lunch of the day, with lovely salads and veggies.

Signature thing? We do an hors d’oeuvre trolley at our Thursday evening dinners. It’s a lot of fun.

dining_room.jpg Is it true you were the ‘other kitchen’ First Lady Michelle Obama visited after ‘getting lost’ en route to The Test Kitchen in 2011? No, we were ‘investigated’ a few weeks before her visit. Nothing the Americans do is unintentional. My girls said she’d never come to Woodstock, too much of a security nightmare. But she did. The main road was closed for 40 minutes; they arrived in three SUVs; there were sharpshooters on the opposite roof. We just played our music, made ‘love sandwiches’ for Michelle Obama’s two girls and served our lunchtime salads.

What don’t people know about you? If I wasn’t doing food I’d probably be arranging flowers, singing or doing radio documentaries.

What are you saving for? To renovate my poor, neglected kitchen at home. I really want a kick-ass home kitchen.

THE DINING ROOM. 117 Sir Lowry Road, Woodstock. Tel 021-461-0463, The Dining Room.
Lunch at R90 per head on Tues to Fri. Longer Thurs dinners at R250 per head. Private parties.

This appeared in The Times on 8 October 2014.

Top chef: putting balls on a plate

luke.jpg Woodstock is a peculiar location for South Africa’s most recognised restaurant.

Victoria and Albert Roads carve arteries through lurid shop signage advertising zips and fasteners, mingled with autoworks, furniture upholsterers and lawnmowers. Trucks hurtle past windows secured with unsightly metal grilles, pedestrians on pavements clutch tightly to belongings. Chef Luke Dale-Roberts selected this environment to open The Test Kitchen in November 2010.

The restaurant blueprint appealed to locals and visitors from the start. Four years in, a five-month year-round waiting list is real. Last-minute cancellations are the way to buck the system.

Breaking Bad actor Aaron Paul was at a nearby table the night I dined. He was impressed, saying as much to 2.2 milllion Twitter followers. The restaurant boasts ‘best in Africa’ and position 48 in The World’s Fifty Best Restaurants, and Eat Out’s Restaurant of the Year title for the second time.

‘Within a 10-minute drive I can get anything I need: carpenters, metalworkers, concrete … That’s why I love Woodstock so much,’ says a grinning Dale-Roberts, showing off barbed wire he nickel-plated to look like jewellery, to hold candy floss for petit fours.

Seeing sheep’s wool snag on fences gave him the idea: ‘I took this down the road to be made and they all thought I was a bit mad when I said it was for candyfloss and marshmallows.’ Whether you buy into the barbed wire analogy or not – keeping sheep in and criminals out – Dale-Roberts is subtly pushing an African sentiment.

So kicking off his 11-course gourmand menu, you’ll find Franschhoek trout with amasi (fermented cow’s milk). Four courses later, seared springbok has pureed turnip milk ‘stencilled’ decoratively on a plate alongside red cabbage. The headline act is the lamb smiley, a cleaned up version of the township special. A sheep’s brain, tongue and cheek pair creatively with capers and anchovy, kale and a cauliflower smear.

Anybody who’s eaten at The Test Kitchen knows that while the food is innovative and skilled, diners enjoy themselves. ‘You’re selling fun. People want to leave feeling they’ve had a good night. It’s not just about the food but also the banter with the waiter,’ says Dale-Roberts. He enjoys a chat himself.

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The Dale-Roberts take on a Lamb Smiley: caper and anchovy emulsion, curly kale and cauliflower purée

It’s also the view of kitchen action as 15 chefs and interns chop, stir, sear or plate at their stations. ‘I put a helluva effort into training,’ says Dale-Roberts of his chefs. ‘I’ll give them everything if they give it back.’

The team is one chef short on the morning we chat, so Dale-Roberts fills in. ‘If I’m having a really shitty day I go on the grill. I find it really cathartic. You stop thinking about anything except getting it perfectly cooked.’

Dale-Roberts manages the pass four nights a week. Head chef Ivor Jones handles the rest. There’s bustle, activity and music in a creative warehouse-type space, while plates are swiftly sent out. Multiple waiters expertly explain dish complexities and the suggested wines or blended teas partnering them.

What of the creative process? ‘The menu has to evolve, offer new things. I keep a running list in my phone of what I want to try. I think people like working with me cause I always have some wacky idea,’ says Dale-Roberts.

Take the visual aspects of the ‘TK concrete ball’, where two concrete flowerpots arrive steaming, containing kingklip grilled on hot charcoal. The finished plate pairs the fish alongside potato-skin puree and other elements. ‘If you’re being clever, you’ve got to deliver. There can’t be too many theatricals either. It’s got to taste good and work,’ he adds.

‘Before, I was obsessed with what people thought. I’d mull on it for days. Now I’m proud of what we’re doing, and don’t hang on to it,’ says Dale-Roberts. His wife of 14 years, Sandalene, is integral to his business and happiness. She designed the restaurant’s pink copper chairs.

Thanks to systems being in place, Dale-Roberts finds time to kick a ball with his seven year old, and sneaks off for long-board surf weekends with chef mates. But the pressure to stay on top is big. ‘I’m a control freak, yes,’ he smiles. ‘Complete.’

THE TEST KITCHEN, The Old Biscuit Mill, 375 Albert Road, Woodstock, Cape Town. Tel 021- 447-2337, www.thetestkitchen.co.za

A version of this profile appeared in The Times on 1 October 2014.

REVIEW: Oodles of noodles at Downtown Ramen

d_ramen.jpg A bowl of noodles is painted on a dark wall, near a locked staircase. It’s the only clue from the seedy pavement. But then you wind inside past the smoker’s haze of Lefty’s Dive Bar, up rickety stairs, to Downtown Ramen.

People are seated at wooden tables. This is comfortably grungy, urban Cape Town. The spot only opened in July and already carries a hint of CBD grime.

Straightforward food attracts young couples or groups popping out for mid-week suppers. It’s mostly T-shirts and jeans, perhaps a few collared shirts and beanies. Mind you, in this matchbox venue boasting a steaming kitchen and no fans, my advice would be to dress light. A chalkboard lists dishes, and clued-up waiters do the rest. Skip the wine (glasses are stumpy); Japanese or local beers taste better with Asian food.

d_ramen.jpg As the name implies, Downtown Ramen serves uncomplicated noodle broths. But Asian bau (R35) make good snacks, steamed into flatbreads with three fillings. Braised beef short rib partners chilli-cucumber pickle; tender meat top-heavy on salty soya sauce marinade. Char sui pork bau is your best bet: lean, smoky pork with zesty citrus-cucumber pickle.

Asian cultures value noodles. They’re comforting and associated with long lives and health. Capetonians ordering a meat or vegetarian noodle broth (R65) at Downtown Ramen won’t be disappointed. Counter seats offer glimpses of noodles being assembled in voluminous ceramic bowls with lids. The Shoyu pork belly is slow-braised, fattily rich with meaty depth. Delicious vegetarian miso broth is lighter, boasting sesame oil hits and firm, soy-sozzled tofu blocks. Boiled eggs ooze runny yolk, and tasty details include greens, seaweed and sprouts.

The reggae music is all wrong (something happened to the regular playlist) but the experience is pretty solid. As a waiter jokes on bringing the bill: ‘Now you can go home, watch a kung fu movie, and fall asleep on the couch’.

DOWNTOWN RAMEN, 103 Harrington Street, Cape Town. Tel 021 461 0407. Open Mondays to Saturdays from 6pm. No reservations.

This review appeared in The Times on 9 September 2014.

REVIEW: Wild at heart Foliage for eating off the fat of the land

soup.jpg The Place: Generally I find there are three types of high-end restaurant diners. The regulars, indulging in a preferred style of cooking from a favourite chef. The fashionables, most interested in the fuss around a new restaurant. And the true food lovers, enthusiasts cautious of fads who are open to educating experiences, like this one.

Chef Chris Erasmus left the heritage cooking of Pierneef à la Motte restaurant to start his own place. Foliage is his take on forest-to-plate eating. It’s high on wow factor and relatively low on fine-dining prices.

f_chef_chris_erasmus.jpg Despite fire-engine red walls, art and smart leather chairs, there is an organic feel to the décor and Mervyn Gers tableware incorporating pine needles and tree bark. Upmarket Franschhoek locals and tourists eat off bare wooden tables. You’ll see family groups (kids are accommodated) although this menu isn’t pitched at young diners.

The Drinks: Franschhoek dominates a decent list with Reyneke’s organic label as the house wine, and a few treasures from the likes of Sadie. We drank glasses of Two Dogs a Peacock and a Horse Sauvignon Blanc (R35) and Chamonix Cab Franc (R60).

f_beef_curry_krummelpap.jpg The Food: Labelled food always raises eyebrows. I know diners who love Foliage, but find its menus weird. For Erasmus, foraged edible plants and mushrooms are an essential part of beautifying plates, flavouring stocks and reducing food costs on a small, seasonal menu rich in free-range meat and game. Most starters are R65 to R80, mains R115 to R135, and desserts R50 to R60.

With a similar pragmatism applied to finding creative uses for animal bits, Erasmus’s chefs are coached to identify this wild produce – around 70 per cent of Foliage’s fresh greens are foraged from rivers or forests. An open kitchen means Erasmus or well-schooled waiters can also field diners’ queries.

A green soup of frothy broad beans, peas and horseradish root (R70) tasted vibrant with spring freshness and luminosity, against salty, puffy eisbein crackling. Fiddlehead and wild pea shoots alongside were picked outside the kitchen (I saw Erasmus return in boots).

f_beef_shortfib_sorrel_mash_forest.jpg An outstanding salad combining warm sweetbread pieces with smoky, cured warthog rib rounds, potato and moist squid, with soft-cooked red pepper and tomato, and crunchy hazelnuts (R75) had no mass-produced leaf packs from Woolworths. Instead, a riot of flavours and textures in tasty ‘forest greens’ (dandelions, wild watercress, goosefoot, chickweed and sweet lupin) alongside perky beans and broccoli.

More traditionally, a main of velvet-soft Wagyu beef shortrib (R165) all shiny with jus intensity, partnering ‘wood greens’, an open onion crispy-fried, and potato mash spiked with sour wood sorrel stalks and horseradish. Delicious.

You can have fun at Foliage too. A comforting Black Angus beef butter curry (R135) delivered fiery flavour depth on clumpy ‘krummelpap’ fenugreek-infused maize, with hits of preserved lemon.

f_charcoal_pears_acorn_frangipane.jpg Earthiness dominated an al dente charcoal-grilled sliced pear dessert (R50) alongside creamy fennel sabayon. Caramel sweetness from candied walnuts, with nutty, spiced balls of acorn – yes – frangipane cakes.

The Verdict? This is adventurous food that’s also technically skilled, tasty and beautiful. Scan the menu for black pudding to wild game bird terrines, alongside Asian pork belly broths, boerbok shoulder and tongue dishes, or creative tripe and trotter interpretations. Trust the chef and you’ll find plenty to enjoy.

FOLIAGE RESTAURANT, 11 Huguenot Road, Franschhoek. Closed for Sunday dinner and Tuesdays. Foliage, Tel 021-876-2328.

This review appeared in The Times on 3 September 2014.

FOODSTUFF: Borage, order of the day

borage.jpg If you’ve worked in Cape Town’s foreshore offices this winter and stepped out for lunch, there’s a good chance Borage Bistro has been on your radar. Open for business since May in the new Portswood Building’s ground floor, this restaurant attracts pretty young things for eggs Benedict Saturday breakfasts on its wide terrace.

Five-star hotels are within easy walking reach, but Borage’s magnetic field is primarily targeting financial institutions and corporates – FirstRand and Old Mutual employees are fast filling the Portswood’s floors, and Investec is opposite. These customers eat in 45 minutes, mostly ordering only one course.

soup.jpg A quiet, twenty-nine-year-old Silwood graduate is the culinary architect behind Borage. “We wanted to be in the foreshore, to cater to businesspeople by offering them a ‘classier’ lunch than the average,” says Frank Marks. “I never wanted to go fine-dining with Borage; it’s too strict. I wanted to do good cooking people would enjoy.”

Windhoek-born Marks is in business with a food-loving banker, his childhood friend Christian Vaatz. They planned to wait another year, but an available vacant space changed all that.

board.jpg Marks is young to be focusing on a kitchen and running a restaurant, and knows it. He’s cooked under some big names, completing his practical studies under chef Luke Dale-Roberts at La Colombe, and joining the opening team when Dale-Roberts went solo with The Test Kitchen. Originally inspired to pursue cooking after watching Heston Blumenthal’s ‘In search of perfection’ series, Marks moved to England in 2011 to learn from his hero. He spent long hours slogging at The Fat Duck and at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. Returning to Cape Town in 2013, Marks rejoined his mentor at The Test Kitchen and The Pot Luck Club.

Why the small Borage blackboard lunch menu, daytime trading hours and food aimed at corporates then? “Making it a bistro gives us more room to come up with what we want. We can do a rustic fish, aubergine and caper caponata, or a fine-dining duck breast cooked in a water bath, with confit leg, Brussels sprout petals and spiced duck sauce,” says Marks. Most starters cost R60, with mains straddling R80 to R105. “Lifestyle was also a factor,” adds this keen mountain biker. “I decided there had to be a way to be a chef and also have a life.”

So what can you eat in this glass-and-grey-walled space with bare wooden tables, fabric banquettes and two outsized lampshades? The signature dish is chicken pie, but it’s no bistro standard. It’s deconstructed into its parts, so a round pastry crown holds individual chicken pieces and garden vegetables with a chicken-and-thyme sauce. (All pastry and croissants are made inhouse.) Soup also has a cheffy element: purees topped with tangy foams, and slow-roasted veggie ‘salts’ on the plate.

fish.jpg Those who order fish and chips receive ordinary hake, but vodka and beer keeps the batter wafer-light. The milk, onion and caper ‘tartare gel’ was a Blumenthal influence lost on me, but the same chef’s triple-cooked chips are well worth having.

Funnily enough, Marks loved cooking but never set out to become a chef. He intended to do a one-year Silwood course to understand cookery basics, before switching to a career in something else.

BORAGE BISTRO, Ground Floor, Portside Building, Corner of Buitengracht & Hans Strydom Ave, Cape Town. Tel 021- 418 992, borage

This article appeared in The Times on 27 August 2014.

REVIEW: Carne on Kloof rates with SA’s best

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The Place: When Giorgio Nava closed Caffé Milano bakery and replaced it with another branch of meat-focused Carne SA this July, I joked to a colleague that perhaps Cape Town’s low-carb-high-fat phase was steering diners away from breads and sweet pastries towards protein-rich steaks sporting fat. The Milanese chef-restaurateur opened the original Carne SA in Cape Town’s Keerom Street legal district in 2009. His point of difference has always been to supply his restaurants with meat from his own Karoo farms.

The new Kloof Street venue has distressed brick walls bearing the same decorative wooden pods found in Carne Keerom Street. Dim lighting makes night dining more enticing but the smaller café interior space easily feels crowded. Street-facing tables are another option. This is more than a steakhouse, and many of Nava’s jet-setting regulars have already congregated. Quite a few are on the upper side of forty, wearing heels and evidence of botox.

The Drinks: Bottled wine value is better value; by the glass starts at R33 for white or R40 for red. You’ll find a fair list of Cap Classique and whites, plus sufficient steak-friendly current and older-vintage reds. We drank Felicité Pinot Noir 2012 (R165).

The Food: The smaller menu looked similar to the original Carne in Keerom. To start, signature ravioli (R80) filled with slow-braised lamb offered savoury simplicity in four perfectly silky pockets, meat juices melding with burnt butter and salty Parmesan. A caprese salad (R80) combined diced tomato, the odd caper and creamy-rich, bouncy burrata mozzarella.

Some of Carne’s game, plus the Dorper lamb and pork, is from Nava’s Karoo farms. But it was grassfed beef from Italian Romagnola crossed with South African Nguni and Afrikaner cows that appealed at our table. Switched on waiters showed off a platter of raw meat specimens; for carnivores there’s no better advertisement. The fat 1.2kg la fiorentina T-bone for two (R400) was sorely tempting. Or for novelty value from the specials, the boneless spider steak from the back of the knee, earning its name from web-like marbled fat streaks (R140 for 250g).

The tender prime rib cut (rib-eye on the bone) didn’t disappoint. Priced from R140 upwards, no sticky bastes diluted meaty flavour on this plump, tender 500g slab (R175) of beef. All Carne grills include sides in the price: mash, spinach, broccoli or salad, otherwise charged at R25 to R30. My thin-cut fries were overcooked, and the mushroom and brandy butter side sauce was small for R20, but that’s where the criticism ends. Cooked to order, a 600g tomahawk (R195) of flavoursome sirloin on a front rib had its bone extended dinosaur-like off an oversized plate.

The Verdict? The obvious question as a diner: were the steaks at Carne on Kloof still hitting the mark? Carne SA’s Keerom HQ dry-ages their prime rib, but other steak cuts are typically wet-aged for 28 days. Carne on Kloof wet-ages all its meat currently, but is introducing dry-ageing space in a couple of months. Although meat’s ageing technicalities are usually relevant, the free-range beef quality was so good here that it wasn’t. Carne on Kloof’s steaks rate with South Africa’s best.

CARNE ON KLOOF, 153 Kloof Street, Tamboerskloof. Tel 021-426-5566. Open Mon to Sat for lunch and dinner. Another Carne SA branch is opening in Constantia in September.

This article appeared in The Times on 20 August 2014.

FOODSTUFF: Bringing home the real bacon

screen_shot_2014-08-19_at_10.26.59_pm.jpg ‘I’m obsessed with good bacon,’ says Cure Deli’s 29-year-old Martin Raubenheimer, aka Bacon Man. ‘Commercial bacon is a watered down version of what our grandparents ate. Quality stuff is about going back to source meat from farmers who give a damn.’

In creating Cure Deli, that’s exactly what Raubenheimer has done. With help from his mom, Raubenheimer cures bacon and creates plump pork sausages by hand. As a boy Raubenheimer wanted to be a butcher, and it was while filming a corporate production about niche food farms in 2010 that he decided to act. ‘I source from farms within 200 km of Cape Town. My big thing is visiting those farms and knowing the animals live as naturally as possible, free of antibiotics and hormones. You are what you eat because of what they eat.’

Cure Deli offers streaky (from the belly), back (the loin), and lean leg bacon. Unusually, Raubenheimer also dry-cures and cold-smokes an ultra-lean neck bacon. It’s tender, salty-smoky and marbled like a jigsaw puzzle.

But it’s the sausages that will rock your world, especially if bland, processed commercial pork-offcut versions tasting of sawdust are your starting point. Cure Deli’s pasture-reared breakfast sausages combine coriander seed hints (they include honey) with nutty depth. Toulouse sausages balance raw garlic with black and white pepper, and nutmeg. Fresh chorizo is the fieriest, pairing smoked paprika, cayenne pepper and garlic. But my favourite is the bacon sausages partnering apples or pears, bursting with smoky bacon offcuts, savoury elements and hits of fruit sweetness.

Naturally there are no rusk fillers, breadcrumbs or preservatives. Raubenheimer makes sausages every week from cleaned, gutted whole pigs. His bacon goes into a dry cure for about a week, followed by hanging and cold smoking.

‘It’s super labour-intensive,’ he admits. But I’m a true garagiste:my mom and I work out of my parents’ garage in Bergvliet.’

CURE DELI Tel 072 240 8511, website. Products available on Saturday mornings from Oranjezicht City Farm Market Day and Earth Fair Food Market, Tokai.

This article appeared in The Times on 13 August 2014.

REVIEW: Dog’s Bollocks for delicious patties served in perky buns

burger.jpg The Place: Look past the uneven floor, corrugated iron ceiling, and menu chalkboards resting on grimy windows of the adjacent auto repair shop. Don’t expect cutlery or fawning waitresses. You’re here for the food. Lampshades hang above wire mesh tables that have seen better days, and the side of Yard accessing the street generally fills with cigarette smoke. Nevertheless Yard attracts families and all sorts. Chalkboards list menus and the rules of ordering with a reminder, in colourful language, to wait until you’re called. Chalk the amount of food and drinks alongside your name, in the appropriate column on the black door.

The Drinks: Write up your order, help yourself to soft drinks or booze in the fridge and, in the evening, hand over cash on the spot. A 600ml Triggerfish pilsner under the Dog’s Bollocks label (R50) is great with burgers or ribs. There is an unlabelled white or red wine blend (R80) too.

The Food: Megan Eloff runs the food side of Yard, and co-owns the business with Nigel Wood. He introduced The Dog’s Bollocks concept in late 2011, with 30 burgers made on a first-come-first-served basis from 5pm, until they run out. Eloff now heads this show, offering 50 burgers, buffalo chicken wings, nachos or ribs.

As of July the burgers include a side order of chips (R85). Of 10 options, newcomers include the Vietnamese bahn mi pulled pork, and pene picada tomato-based sauce with chorizo and roasted peppers, topped with an egg. The novel chicken-fillet Caesar burger looked good on the pass too, with bacon, lettuce and homemade anchovy mayo. There’s a vegan and Noakes option, the latter with lettuce replacing Woodstock Bakery’s glorious stoneground-flour buns.

burger.jpg On a busy Thursday night we escaped the smokers with a table beyond the pass. The Mexican chilli and cheeseburger came with a mince-and-kidney-bean chilli con carne topping, plus a cheese sauce. It was hearty, but heavy on cumin, and I’d like more heat. The 3B (bacon and cheese barbecue burger) was classic and good. A perky bun sandwiched a thick patty dripping in sweet tomato-barbeque sauce, with crispy bacon, cheese, lettuce and trimmings. Messily delicious, these were super-burgers stretching roughly 15cm across, with sides of nicely crispy handcut chips. A slab of excellent barbeque porkbelly ribs (R120) tasted oak-smoked and tender, in the same sticky sauce.

The Verdict? Yard feels a bit like you’re at someone’s student digs party, where the music is loud and you’re expected to help yourself to drinks in the fridge. But as my eating partner said above the din, ‘No digs party I went to ever had food this good.’

Need to know: Cash-only operation. A largely female team transforms quality ingredients and serves it with sass. You’ll need multiple wet wipes once you’ve eaten though. Visit Yard after 5pm for burgers, wings, nachos and ribs at The Dog’s Bollocks (Mon to Sat 5 – 10pm). Or build your own breakfast at Mucky Mary’s Hubcaps (Mon to Fri 7am, Sat 9am – 4pm). At lunchtime order sandwiches or soft tacos with creative fillings (the pulled pork banh mi taco is excellent) from The Bitch’s Tits (Mon to Sat 9am – 4pm).

THE DOG’S BOLLOCKS, Yard, 6 Roodehek Street, Gardens. Tel 082-885-5719.

This review appeared in The Times on 6 August 2014.

REVIEW: Kentucky chicken waffles? You’ve got to be joking

chicken_waffle.jpg It’s known as the chicken waffle, and the combination is as peculiar as it sounds. An otherwise savoury dish drowned in a cloying maple-flavoured syrup, too sweet to make sense. Yet at a grungy Cape Town hole-in-the-wall called Lefty’s, true believers swear the R65 Kentucky chicken waffle is a life-changing experience.

On entering Lefty’s you sniff stale smoke from the bar and pass chairs in chaotic disarray from the revelry of the night before. The dimly lit eating area’s embossed wallpaper and stained-wood panels resembles a fifties dining room, but doesn’t hide the canteen rawness of the adjacent kitchen.

‘You need support, someone cheering you on, if you order one of those,’ warned the waitress on scribbling the waffle order. Fortunately I had a wingman, who settled on a tender, tasty strip of pork ribs for R75.

The chicken waffle arrived. Puffy Belgian pieces made from a craft beer and butter batter. Boneless chicken breasts, marinated in buttermilk, thyme, cayenne pepper and hot sauce overnight, and then deep-fried until crispy in seasoned flour. Back bacon bits for smoky saltiness.

chicken_waffle.jpg ‘The chicken waffle started out as a joke,’ recalls co-owner and chef Ryan McDonagh. ‘I was fascinated by this American thing. We put it on the menu, convinced it wouldn’t stick.’ It did.

‘It’s so over the top that if you’re going to get it, you’re going to get it. It’s quite an abrasive sort of dish – so arrogant and full on – but it works in its own way,’ he adds.

It was a hefty, surprisingly satisfying plate. But after four bites I couldn’t stop airlifting the chicken and bacon clear of the saccharine pool, desperate for salvation. ‘A lot of people just can’t fathom it. That’s why they come,’ shrugs McDonagh. ‘Everybody figures they have to try it just once, to see what the fuss is all about.’

LEFTY’S DIVE BAR, 103 Harrington Street. Tel 021-461-0407. Open Mondays from 4pm, Tuesdays to Saturdays from 11am. Kitchen closes 11pm.

This appeared in The Times on 30 July 2014.