REVIEW African Relish not quite 100% Karoo

I’ve never visited Prince Albert previously, but with good friends choosing this increasingly popular Little Karoo town as their wedding venue, I’ve now had the pleasure. The town is centred around dainty old-fashioned buildings along a long, wide main street that seem to offer more guesthouses and gift stores than houses in parts. Some of the manicured lawns contribute to an ordered attitude that defies the dust and crisp air causing city skins to dry out. PA is surrounded by little koppies with rocky outcrops and scrubby bushes, and dwarfed by the magnificent Swartberg range.

One of the newest arrivals to PA is chef Vanie Padayachee, previously cooking at Le Quartier Français, Grande Provence and fu.shi. African Relish is a modern open-plan space in the main street where the kitchen isn’t separated from the dining area, thanks to clever design elements of cement floors, exposed brick or painted walls. One to five-day cooking classes coordinated or led by Padayachee are the main attraction. But on Friday and Saturday evenings African Relish becomes a small restaurant. It’s an elegantly casual place you’ll want to dress up a little for, and one of the better alternatives in town.

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A small menu: three starters, four mains (including a vegetarian offering) and three desserts. That’s it.

Fittingly the food is quality country-style rather than cheffy, professionalism showing in the plating. The only “formal” aspect of the meal was a delicious amuse bouche of vegetable soup made from broad beans, peas and herbs from the adjacent garden.

A slice of balsamic roasted onion tart hit the spot with lovely chunky bacon lardons in a vinaigrette over lettuce leaves. Alternatives were a butternut and sage fritter with garden salad and bitter chocolate dressing or a spicy chicken spring roll with mint dressing.

Slow-roasted lamb shank sounded heavy, while twice-baked leek and Parma Prince soufflé (a pungent hard cheese from Prince Albert’s Gay’s Dairy) with homemade tomato relish looked delicious going to another table. It’s easy to overcook game and unfortunately the kudu and pork potjie was, its samp and bean accompaniment delightfully creamy with Padayachee’s addition of cream and Parmesan. My Cape Malay chicken casserole was tastily succulent. It was probably spicier than normal with orange glossiness in the sauce, but I’m thankful that the chef’s Indian heritage means her family sends regular spice packages from Durban. Creamy risotto with squares of roasted pumpkin partnered the dish. A very pleasant Sauvignon Blanc/Chardonnay blend from local winery Bergwater was priced a little under R100.

African Relish portions are substantial so we shared dessert. Chocolate and fig brownie with white chocolate sauce was ordered, but the waiter brought a slice of moist warm chocolate malva pudding with quality homemade vanilla ice-cream. The mistake wasn’t a problem as the malva was enjoyable. Service wasn’t particularly informed, but then the open kitchen means Padayachee visits tables periodically to fill in the gaps. The African Relish menu has ‘100% Karoo’ stamped on the front page, which might mislead some diners. This chef mixes traditional Karoo favourites with her own style and doesn’t take it too seriously. That shouldn’t be seen as a negative.

Spend: Starters R45. Mains R75 to R95. Desserts R40.
Wine: No printed wine list. Local Bergwater red and white wines are served.
Value: Fair to Good. Flavour rating: High.

AFRICAN RELISH, 34 Church Street, Prince Albert. Tel 023 541 1381